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Debate over Fairmount Park referendum

For 141 years, the Fairmount Park Commission has been charged with preserving and protecting what has grown into one of the largest municipal parks in the world.

For 141 years, the Fairmount Park Commission has been charged with preserving and protecting what has grown into one of the largest municipal parks in the world.

The 16-member commission must approve acquisition and disposition of all park land, and manage the complex ecosystems knitting together the five watersheds that form the heart of the 9,200-acre park.

But on Nov. 4, voters will be asked to abolish the independent commission, established by state law in 1867, and merge Fairmount Park with the city Recreation Department, placing the whole under the mayor as a standard city department.

Why this is happening and what it might mean depends very much on who is asked. For proponents of the change, including Mayor Nutter and many park advocates, the Fairmount Park Commission is a confused and confusing entity - 19th-century sand in the wheels of 21st-century municipal management.

For those who question the wisdom of the merger - all the elected commissioners and some park and recreation advocates - approving the change, which requires amending the 1951 Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, amounts to punishing the victim and rewarding the political powers that are largely responsible for past failures.

Alexander "Pete" Hoskins, board president of the alliance, said major cuts in park funding and staff began under Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, whom he termed "the beginning of the end for the park." Subsequent mayors have allowed funding to stagnate.

Hoskins allowed, however, that the charter amendment offers "no guarantees," particularly when it comes to funding.

Nutter echoes that point, even as he pushes for gathering Fairmount Park under his wing.

"As I often say, if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster," Nutter said last week after an event promoting the charter change. (The mayor also was featured last night at a Philadelphia Parks Alliance panel discussion in support of the change.)

Nutter's comments came as city officials pondered what are widely rumored to be deep cuts in proposed city budgets - including those for parks and the Recreation Department, where lists of possible rec-center closures are surfacing. The mayor said no decisions on cuts had been made.

"To me, a merger isn't necessary to give [the park] the resources they need," said Councilman Bill Green, who opposed the charter resolution in Council. "What happens in 20 years if we find ourselves in a financial crisis? We look around and we see 9,000 acres of park. What do we do?"

What concerns Green is that without the independent Fairmount Park Commission, Council or a mayoral administration could sell land. "As fiduciaries," said Green, "we might be obligated to do something."

Lost in the focus on the park has been the potential impact of the proposed merger on the Department of Recreation, a chronically underfunded and understaffed agency that operates facilities and centers at the core of virtually every neighborhood.

Speaking of the charter change, Michael McCrae, head of the Philadelphia Recreation Advisory Council, said: "It can be very alarming. This is a total leap of faith. I have no idea what it's going to look like. There are no details, and the devil is in the details."

Joseph Syrnick, former city chief engineer and a former member of the park commission who now heads the private Schuylkill River Development Corp., is equally cautious in considering the merger.

"This has the potential for some real problems," said Syrnick. "It's not like you're hooking up a failed Fairmount Park with a stellar department."

That's not the story, said Nutter. "We're trying to change a system and a culture that has not had the level of support," he argued.

A merger has been proposed and failed several times. The current proposal, backed by Council members Darrell L. Clarke and Blondell Reynolds Brown, passed Council last summer with the alliance's support.

Propelling passage was Nutter's pledge to dedicate a portion of increased city parking taxes to the park budget. The mayor proposed a $2.5 million increase to the park's stagnant $14 million annual operating budget this year and pledged a 40 percent increase over the next four years.

The Recreation Department's proposed 2009 budget is $40.4 million, up about $1.5 million over last year.

Advocates argued that a merger would eliminate a confusing park governance structure and clarify lines of accountability.

"This is a proposal that in the long run will make it more clear who is responsible for the success of the park," said Hoskins.

Since shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Fairmount Park Commission has been elected behind closed doors by a board of judges.

The charter change would radically change this. First, it would abolish the commission and establish an advisory board whose sole function would be to set policy and guidelines on land issues and other broad matters.

City Council would solicit commission nominees, hold a hearing, and submit recommendations for the mayor's final selection. The proposed change suggests criteria for selection of commissioners but sets no requirements.

The actual merger would "reduce duplication" of services, said Pauline Abernathy, senior Nutter adviser.

Interviews with various park and Recreation Department officials indicated, however, that the bulk of duplicated services have been identified and addressed over the last four years. For instance, the park has transferred swimming pools and rec centers to the Recreation Department's control. Lawn mowing, tree cutting and most administrative services have been combined.

None of this required a change in the charter.

Absent from the proposed charter amendment is any mention of funding.

Nor are there any prohibitions or requirements regarding sale or development of park land. Those matters are consigned to a new Commission on Parks and Recreation, which would establish guidelines for such matters, but would have no enforcement power - unlike the Fairmount Park Commission.

The charter change is also silent on the issue of "councilmanic privilege" - the tradition of deference to Council members on land issues within their districts.

"They're fixing something that's not broken," said Syrnick of Schuylkill River Development. "Fairmount Park needs some help in some areas, mainly funding."