TODAY, Dec. 7, 2009, marks the 10-year anniversary of President Clinton's signing of the Independence Visitor Center Authorization Act, which empowered the secretary of the interior to execute a detailed and long-term management agreement with the Independence Visitor Center Corp. to construct and operate the Independence Visitor Center on federally owned land at Independence National Historical Park.
But after 10 years, the National Park Service still hasn't entered into a management agreement with the Independence Visitor Center establishing fair and transparent policies and procedures for the management of the center.
Instead, the Park Service has simply handed over management to the Visitor Center - which makes decisions in secret, outside of the careful safeguards that control the Park Service - under the guise of a "special-use permit" that's been reissued 26 times.
Under the Park Service's own regulations, these permits are supposed to allow a "short-term activity" that "provides a benefit to an individual, group or organization, rather than the public at large." Clearly, operation of the visitor center is not a short-term activity, and the center benefits the public at large. These permits should be used for things like assemblies and demonstrations, not as a loophole for avoiding the laws passed by Congress.
The Visitor Center building is owned by the taxpayers. So, too, for all intents and purposes, is the nonprofit corporation that runs the center: The government has provided north of $6.4 million in taxpayer money to the Independence Visitor Center Corp. to fund its secretive operations.
But taxpayers deserve a transparent organization that won't vigorously object to complying with the Freedom of Information Act and the Pennsylvania Right to Know law.
THE ACTIONS OF the Visitor Center and the Park Service haven't escaped the attention of Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Bob Brady, who have each written to the Park Service about problems regarding the operation of the center.
On April 27, Brady wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, describing how "the failure" of Independence National Historical Park and the Independence Visitor Center "to execute the statutorily authorized Operating Agreement has had a material adverse effect on the overall visitor experience to America's Birthplace for numerous reasons, including violating the purpose and spirit of INHP's enabling legislation and INHP and IVC having effectively turned the taxpayer-supported IVC into a federally subsidized sales and staging area for large corporations offering tour-related services in Philadelphia who have more favorable access to operate their businesses" both inside and outside of the Visitor Center on federal property.
The Senate also questioned Jonathan Jarvis, new director of the Park Service, during his confirmation hearings in July why the law signed in 1999 about the Visitor Center hasn't been implemented.
He testified, "I am told that there are only a few legal and policy matters where agreement has not been reached, and it is expected that a final document will be signed this summer."
Summer has come and gone, and there is still no agreement. Instead, there have been six new extensions to the permit.
Because of the numerous problems caused by the Park Service noncompliance with the Visitor Center Act, and in order to preserve its rights, our firm, the Constitutional Walking Tour, which conducts guided tours starting at the Visitor Center, filed a lawsuit here against the Independence Visitor Center Corp. and the National Park Service in federal court alleging numerous claims including breach of contract, deprivation of due process, unjust enrichment and interference with contractual relations.
THIS SUIT IS about holding the stewards of Independence Park and the Visitor Center to the standards of government fairness, accountability and transparency established by our Founders on that very ground at Independence National Historical Park.
With 2009 coming to a close, let's remind Mr. Jarvis of his commitment to the Senate when he testified: "I support the effort to reach a conclusion on this agreement." We urge him to execute an agreement restoring the rule of law at the Visitor Center before year's end.
Jon and Leslie Bari are the owners of the Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia. E-mail email@example.com. For a complete copy of Rep. Brady's letter, see www.theconstitutional.com/bradyletter.