Thursday, January 27, 2000

Editorial: Park Commission / Citizen Body Still Has Place in City Government

Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIANS are still waiting for the City Council to offer a good reason to abolish the Park Commission. Yet the effort has gathered momentum again, with the likely passage of an ordinance that would shift control of 10 riverfront parks, Mud Island River Park, the cobblestones and the historic promenade from the Park Commission to the mayor and City Council.

A council committee will consider a more ominous proposal next Tuesday: creating a department of city government to handle parks and recreation affairs, eliminating the Park Commission once and for all.

This time the council is launching a strike against the commission over the latter's plan to demolish the old Melrose High School building to make way for a senior citizens' center in Orange Mound. Leaders of the council movement to dump the commission insist it has arisen not from a personality conflict, but from a need to streamline the park system.

Council members also argue that the commission has shown a lack of political sensitivity on issues that usually end up in their laps. In fact, the Park Commission simply made its best judgment of what to do about Melrose and appropriately presented its case to the ultimate authority: the City Council.

The council and the commission have been through this before. The commission recommends a course of action on, say, a proposal to lease some land in Martin Luther King Jr./Riverside Park, or to build a senior citizens' center in Overton Park, or to convert Confederate Park to a monument to cancer survivors. Or perhaps it plays whatever cards it has in its deck to delay something the council wants, such as buying Whitehaven Country Club.

Its tactics occasionally prompt council members to dredge up the hoary proposal to abolish the commission. In 1996 the council created a 10-member advisory panel to study the idea. The group recommended leaving the commission alone. Earlier that year, a City Council funding moratorium on park projects temporarily set park operations on their ear.

This time the council will succeed in dumping the commission, predicts Mayor Willie Herenton, who isn't publicly taking sides on the issue. But the mayor's current agenda, which involves more direct City Hall involvement in schools, day care centers and the Head Start program, would suggest that he wouldn't mind a more direct hand in park operations as well.

An updated legal interpretation of the City Charter holds that the council has the power to get rid of the five-member commission. The Park Commission's defenders, such as Fred Davis, the mayor's nominee to succeed John Malmo as its chairman, hold that only the voters can eliminate the commission because the authority to create it is embedded in the charter.

Whether that interpretation eventually holds up, abolishing the Park Commission is a bad idea. The level of autonomy delegated to the commission to operate city parks provides a necessary buffer between the parks and politics, and a check against their potential degradation as part of a spoils system.

Besides, Park Commission members, who serve without pay, have shown that they can be a useful source of expertise.

COUNCIL members can, and should, continue to make careful and deliberate reviews of Park Commission decisions. And they can support Memphis parks with an adequate budget.

The $20 million annual tax-funded portion of the parks and recreation operating budget has not grown appreciably in 15 years. If council members truly want to do something to improve Memphis parks, a fresh look at the money they allocate to park upkeep would be a better place to start.

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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