A proposal to meld Fairmount Park with the city Recreation Department appears headed for a November referendum, with park advocates, City Council and Mayor Nutter aligned to radically change oversight of the 9,200-acre city jewel.
With a unanimous recommendation from Council's Law and Government Committee yesterday, the measure faces few obstacles to gain final Council approval next week.
If passed by voters, a change in the city's Home Rule Charter would eliminate the Fairmount Park Commission, which has controlled the park for 141 years. The park system was founded in 1855 as a way to protect the city's water supply. It includes 63 neighborhood parks and the sites of the Philadelphia Zoo, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Fairmount Water Works, to name only a few properties.
The commission, whose members are appointed by the Board of Judges of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, has been a lightning rod for criticism for its formerly secretive selection process and lack of direct accountability. Of the top 10 U.S. cities, Philadelphia is the only one with separate departments for parks and recreation, city officials said.
That recipe has contributed to duplication of services and confusion among residents about where to receive permits or information on park hours, said Donald Schwarz, deputy mayor of health and opportunity. Without real oversight on funding, Council and administrations have refused to increase Fairmount Park's budget significantly over the last three decades.
Park advocates had opposed the effort to bring it under the control of the Recreation Department, in part, because they feared it was an attempt to further reduce park resources.
This year, however, Nutter - whose former City Council district in Northwest and West Philadelphia includes more parkland than any other - promised Fairmount Park a 46 percent increase over the next five years. He immediately increased the 2009 budget to $15.6 million from $13.2 million this year.
Nutter's financial commitment helped persuade park advocates to support the plan to do away with the Fairmount Park Commission.
The bill would fuse Fairmount Park and the Recreation Department as the new Department of Parks and Recreation, with separate parks and recreation commissioners reporting to the deputy mayor of health and opportunity.
The bill would establish a 15-member Commission on Parks and Recreation, responsible for adopting "standards and guidelines" for land and facilities. The parks and recreation commissioner and other city officials "shall give substantial weight" to those rules.
Nine of the 15 members would be chosen by the mayor from a list submitted by Council in an open application process that favors qualifications over political connections. The other six spots are occupied by representatives of the Council president and the Planning Commission, along with the water commissioner, the public property commissioner, the streets commissioner, and the parks and recreation commissioner.
One of the few dissenting notes yesterday was sounded by retired Common Pleas Court Judge Alex Bonavitacola, who said a charter amendment should be proposed only for "an urgent and compelling reason." He cautioned that the purpose of putting the parks under the stewardship of the judges "was to remove the governance from the political process, knee-jerk popular desires, and to prevent the dismantling of parkland by sale or lease."
Council members responded that elected judges in Philadelphia were not free from politics, and that elected officials would be more accountable to the electorate for what they did with parkland.