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Globe-Trotting Parks Dept. Head Too Busy to Meet, Community Groups Say

By James Fanelli | November 3, 2014 7:25am
 City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver has traveled to Spain, England, Singapore and South Africa since he took office. His frequent travels has irritated some community groups trying to get meetings with him about park issues.
Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver Frequently Travels The Globe
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NEW YORK CITY — Since taking office, the city Parks Department commissioner has traveled to at least eight cities on four continents to deliver speeches and teach classes — but his globe-trotting doesn’t fly with some staff and community groups who have a hard time getting ahold of him, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Mitchell Silver, who took charge of the city’s green spaces on May 12, has attended urban-planning conferences in Singapore, Spain, North Carolina, Kentucky, England and South Africa in the past five months, records show. He is also spending Fridays this fall teaching a class on urban planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in Boston.

 Mitchell Silver has attended urban-planning conferences in Singapore, Spain, North Carolina, Kentucky, England and South Africa in the past five months, records show.
Mitchell Silver has attended urban-planning conferences in Singapore, Spain, North Carolina, Kentucky, England and South Africa in the past five months, records show.
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DNAinfo

While the commissioner hasn't missed an opportunity to deliver a keynote address to an audience overseas, he did cancel a meeting in September with two Brooklyn city councilmen, Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch. The councilmen had worked for five months to get a sit-down with Silver to discuss their concerns about the replacement of the Coney Island boardwalk with concrete slabs, sources said.

The cancelation irked Ida Sanoff, a Brighton Beach activist who has been working for years with elected officials to improve the upkeep of the boardwalk.

“[Silver] can’t seem to schedule a meeting. This is a crazy,” Sanoff said. “We are not talking about President Obama here. We’re talking about the Parks commissioner.”

Silver travels so frequently that some Parks Department employees keep tabs on his whereabouts by checking his social media posts, a Parks insider told DNAinfo.

“It just seems from his Twitter account that he’s traveling a lot,” the source said. “He seems like a part-time commissioner. … Being a New York City Parks commissioner is a full-time job.”

The source said that some Parks personnel are frustrated that he still hasn’t made any changes to the agency’s upper management — many of whom are holdovers from Mayor Bloomberg’s administration — or addressed chronic delays to agency projects.

In late May, city councilmembers grilled Silver during a hearing about delays and the lack of transparency in capital projects. And in June, independent advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks released a report criticizing the agency’s slowness in finishing park rehabilitation projects.

Yet only last week did Silver hold a focus group with staff in the agency’s capital projects division to discuss how to fix the glacial pace of rehabs, the source said.

“It’s almost six months into his administration, and he is just starting to examine this problem, and he still hasn’t changed his top administration,” the source said.

Carol Greitzer, a former city councilwoman who is a board member of the Union Square Community Coalition, said Silver’s out-of-town traveling diminishes his ability to tackle critical parks issues.

“The idea of having a Parks commissioner more accessible to people outside New York City than to his constituency here is ridiculous,” she told DNAinfo.

Greitzer said for the past five months she has unsuccessfully tried to get Silver to meet with the coalition to discuss Union Square’s future, especially in light of recent reports that the pavilion’s restaurant was closing after just six months.

USCC, which started in 1980, fought to stop the restaurant’s opening three years ago and even sued the city and the previous Parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, over it.

“We thought we should get off with a better start with the new commissioner,” she said. “In early June I started calling up for an appointment.”

Greitzer said the Parks Department told her that the earliest available dates to meet with Silver were in August — but then that month came and went without any sit-down.

She said when she recently called the Parks Department to follow up, an employee told her that Silver was very busy and suggested a meeting with a lower-level member of the agency.

The Parks Department said that they've invited Greitzer to talk with agency officials, and deputy Commissioner for Management and Budget Robert Garafola met with her on Sept. 16.

But Greitzer said she met with Garafola on a separate topic — and that USCC wants face time with Silver. And she blames his international trips and Ivy League teaching gig for him not having the time to meet.

“He hasn’t shown his face here. If he even walked into my apartment, I wouldn’t know who he is,” she said.

Parks Department spokesman Arthur Pincus defended Silver's schedule, noting that the commissioner fills his days with meetings with agency personnel, community groups, elected officials, nonprofit partners and administration officials.

"Commissioner Silver is committed to fostering strong working relationships throughout the city to improve the parks system," he said. "New York City is a leader in innovative parks management, and benefits from increased collaboration with parks experts from around the world."

Pincus also pointed out some of Silver's early accomplishments as commissioner, including creating a framework to address parks equity, launching an online system to track capital projects and developing a process to streamline capitals.

Pincus said that Silver has also established clear protocols for communication and decision-making with his deputies when he is out of town.

Geoffrey Croft, the head of watchdog group New York City Park Advocates, said he has heard a growing chorus of complaints from community groups and local leaders about Silver's absence. He said a truly engaged Parks commissioner needs to put his obligations to the city first.

"The Parks Department is in shambles and is in desperate need of reform," he said. "Calls from the public, community groups, elected officials and park employees regarding Silver's absences is certainly getting louder, and we expect his non-park commitments to be severally curtailed going forward. "

Three months after becoming mayor, Bill de Blasio appointed Silver as Parks commissioner with a salary of $205,000. At the time, Silver was the chief planning and development officer of Raleigh, N.C. Because he lived in North Carolina, Silver and his family didn't fully relocate to New York City until July 1.

Capital New York reported in May that when Silver interviewed with the de Blasio administration for the job, he informed them of travel commitments he had through 2014, including teaching at Harvard this fall.

His class, "Planning for the 21st Century: Emerging Trends, Challenges and Opportunities," meets on Fridays from 2 p.m. to 5 pm. The course ends on Nov. 21.

Silver's trips are related to his work as an urban planner in Raleigh and as a board member of the American Planning Association. The city's Conflict of Interest Board has approved all of the travel and Harvard class, according to the Parks Department. The conferences cover the cost of his travel, according to the Parks Department.

Silver was in Singapore on June 4 for the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum, records show. A few days later, on June 10, he was a panelist on urban planning in Bilbao, Spain.

On Sept. 3, Silver was back in Raleigh, speaking at the Hopscotch Design Festival.

Later that month, he flew to England where on Sept. 20 he received an honorary member lifetime award from the Royal Town Planning Institute at Oxford University. Two days later, he gave a lecture at Sheffield University in Sheffield, England.

On Friday, Oct. 3, he was the keynote speaker at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference in Lexington, Ky. And just two weeks ago, on Monday, Oct. 20, he was the keynote speaker for the Planning Africa 2014 conference in Durban, South Africa, records show.

The Parks Department said the South Africa trip was his last out-of-town commitment and that at this time no future teaching gigs or speaking engagements have been approved by the Conflict of Interest Board. The agency declined to comment when asked if Silver had submitted future trips or lectures for approval.

Councilman Treyger and Councilman Deutsch want to meet with Silver to discuss their concerns about the Parks Department’s plans to replace a swath of the historic Coney Island boardwalk between Coney Island Avenue and Brighton 15th Street with concrete slabs.

Treyger and Deutsch, who represent the area along the boardwalk, have been working on the issue with local Brighton Beach groups, who claim that the concrete would ruin the wooden surface's iconic look and possibly make the neighborhood more vulnerable to flooding.

In a letter the councilmen sent to Mayor de Blasio in May, they wrote that there is potential evidence that concrete on another section of the boardwalk “may have exacerbated storm-surge damage during Hurricane Sandy.”

Treyger and Deutsch finally got a meeting scheduled with Silver in early September, sources said. But the Parks Department canceled the sit-down at the last minute, according to sources.

The Parks Department said Silver canceled the meeting because of a scheduling conflict, not because of travel issues.

Ida Sanoff has been working for years to restore the boardwalk, which, she said, has been neglected for too long.

“It’s pretty frustrating as a member of the public that your elected officials are trying their darndest to help you … but we all seem to be stonewalled here and I don’t know why,” said Sanoff, who is also the executive director of conservation group Natural Resources Protective Association.

Councilman Treyger told DNAinfo that he and Councilman Deutsch have met with the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner, but he is looking forward to a meeting with Silver in the future.

"I think [the boardwalk] is very deserving of a serious meeting with the Parks commissioner to make sure the community's needs are heard," Treyger said. "I am looking forward to meeting with him."