MANHATTAN — Once again, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has chosen management chops over departmental experience.
The city’s new Parks Commissioner, Veronica White, is best known for her controversial anti-poverty experiments, including trying to pay poor people to attend parent-teacher conferences and take their kids to the dentist.
But the Harvard-trained lawyer insisted she’s always yearned to work for city parks.
"It's been my dream job forever, actually,” White told reporters Monday at a press conference at Soundview Park in the The Bronx, where the mayor announced she will be taking the reins from longtime Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who is moving onto a position at the non-profit Trust for Public Land.
White, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and now lives on the Upper West Side, said she applied for the job years ago during Bloomberg's first term — but lost out to Benepe.
"They told me they'd keep my resume on file. So, here I am,” she said.
White has spent the past six years as Executive Director of the Center for Economic Opportunity, an experimental center launched by Bloomberg to test innovative ways to reduce poverty, using $100 million a year in public and private funds.
The center has been a hotbed for ideas, including the short-lived Opportunity NYC program, which tried to encourage the poor to engage in socially-desirable behaviors by paying them cash do things like hold down steady jobs, as well as more successful efforts, such as developing a new way to measure poverty that takes into account public assistance, including food stamps.
Before that, White held a slew of government and private-sector jobs. She consulted for non-profits, real estate and public-private partnerships, served as COO of the New York City Partnership, CEO of the New York City Housing Partnership and as a deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
She also served for eight years on the New York Advisory Council of the Trust for Public Land, where she "helped the Trust work with government agencies to maximize the impact of parks and public green spaces," Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg said that when choosing Benepe's replacement he was looking for someone "with the same pioneering spirit to lead Parks." He touted her "exemplary record of exploring innovative partnerships and attracting private funds."
Is White the New Black?
Still, some were surprised by White’s lack of parks experience, considering the firestorm that ignited after Bloomberg appointed media maven Cathie Black as Schools Chancellor, despite having no educational background. She lasted less than three months.
“It sounds like this is another Cathie Black thing. Zero experience,” said Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, who has long been a critic of the growing privatization of the city's parks.
Others were more open-minded.
“I think a lot of people are surprised by her selection,” admitted Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, who nonetheless thought she brought an important perspective to the table.
“What we are hopeful about is that she’s someone who will look at parks in terms of broader neighborhood and community development,” said Leicht, pointing to White’s experience working to tackle poverty and her understanding of the way that open spaces can impact a community.
Leicht, who had worked closely with White when she was involved in housing issues, also touted White as a force to be reckoned with.
“She is very smart and very focused and very intense,” Leicht said. “I think she understands how the city works very well. And I think she’s someone that gets stuff done.”
Roland Lewis, President of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, who also worked closely with White on housing issues, agreed the appointment had little in common with the ill-fated Black.
“I think it’s a far cry from that situation,” said Lewis.
“She’s not a complete outsider. She knows city life, she knows the Bloomberg administration,” Lewis said, describing White as a “very smart, capable person” he was excited to work with on parks issues affecting the waterfront.
Her Vision for City Parks
Bloomberg said White’s ability to forge partnerships between the public, private and nonprofit sectors will prove crucial for an agency whose budget has been slashed in recent years.
“Otherwise we won’t be able to afford all the things we’re trying to do,” said Bloomberg, calling corporate sponsorships of the city’s parks “one of the great resources New York City has.”
White echoed the mayor’s point, saying that she would work to secure both public and private money to maintain the 29,000 acres of land under the department’s purview, and try to continue in Benepe's footsteps.
“As we increase the parkland, we obviously have to increase the resources available — public and private, especially private,” White said.
"Our goal is to have people be able to go and get close to parks and exercise,” she said. “Whether it's biking or swimming or just walking."
On a personal note, White said she is an avid user of city parks.
She recalled growing up in Brooklyn and learning to "bike and play ball" in local parks. Now, she she spends the most time in Riverside and Central parks, where her kids spent hours on the playgrounds when they were younger, she said.
Before moving into the public sector, White practiced law at Brown & Wood and Sidley & Austin.
She and her husband, Victor Marrero, live with their two sons on the Upper West Side.