Do we really need a legislative act to know that our parks belong to us?


The more one looks at the parks district situation, the more it becomes painfully clear that the sudden and immediate impetus for enabling legislation is a muddy scrum of shadowy local political interests, combining to produce even less transparency than I’d assumed from the start.

Almost without exception, the central participants in the melodrama have behaved not so much as Machiavellians, which would imply a degree of intentional malice that few of them actually possess (there are exceptions, of course), but rather as post-Pavlovian trauma survivors, reacting instinctively to layer upon layer of distrust and dysfunction, suspicions so deeply ingrained in the local political subconscious that the players remain wholly unaware of their conditioned responses even as eyebrows twitch, knees jerk and hammers fall.

The fact that this blog must function as a final avenue to ask questions and try to publicly untangle the morass is a source of lamentable necessity and personal annoyance, certainly having much to do with the local newspaper’s bizarrely benign view of journalism as mere stenography. There are matters far more pressing in my working life than this, and yet here we are. So be it. We may be right, and we may be crazy, and perhaps some good eventually will come of this belated effort required to let the sun in when everyone else behaves like vampires with the curtains drawn.

Imagine for a moment that you are a resident of Floyd County, one who occasionally reads the local newspaper and tries to stay somewhat well-informed.

As of roughly a month ago, if asked, you’d probably have agreed that parks are a good thing in the general quality-of-life sense, that Floyd County has some good ones, that there’s always room for improvement, and that the NA-FC Parks Department and its Board – units charged with maintaining parks in the county as a whole – have been doing a fine job of managing scant resources in trying economic times.

All broadly true, in our assessment. After that, things get murky.

One month ago, you’d have been blissfully unaware of numerous, long-gestating, behind-the-scenes maneuverings leading up to a surprising strategy, whereby the Parks Department, seemingly out of nowhere, moved for special parks district taxing legislation during the current session.

As we know, under such a regime funding would be fed directly into the newly styled district rather than be subject to the discretion of local elected officials.

In the main, as I understand the public case made by parks district proponents, the legislation sought by the Parks Board as urged on it by board attorney Rick Fox (has anyone thought to ask why Fox, an inveterately political, umm, participant, advised such a drastic remedy, one seemingly designed to incite violent political eruptions?), and eagerly authored by Rep. Ed Clere – none of whom seem to have any taste for public consensus as driving the legislation, addresses these two prime concerns:

1. Funding continuity, given that there is clear and indisputable evidence that county government has not maintained its fair share of financing relative to the city’s annual tithe.

2. Politics, i.e., the urgent need to “remove” parks from politics so that potential (and as yet undocumented) major donations can be accepted and devoted to specific improvement projects, given that these as yet unidentified donors (see below) are wary about seeing their donations used by conniving politicians for other, unintended purposes.

The obvious questions are many, varied, and have gone largely unasked by the mainstream media.

To me, first and foremost is this: Can someone explain the reason why the malady is so severe that major invasive surgery is required?

If the prognosis is so bleak as to necessitate a parks district, why did the Parks Board and Rep. Clere, its legislative sponsor, proceed in the darkness, and not present the case to the public?

Why is the local funding situation so out of kilter? It’s deeper than just the parks, is it not? Why does county government pay less than its share, and the city more? Why can’t we know who the mystery donors are, and precisely what their money would go toward funding? Moreover, how has the situation digressed to such a point that the legislative end-around is required?

Why must men and women from Angola, Warsaw and Brazil intervene in Floyd County’s local problem? Is it a crisis? If there is a crisis, why can’t we resolve it ourselves? Why didn’t anyone know about the crisis, and why is the dysfunction so profound that such a heavy handed legislative expedience is necessary?

At least one reason for the gambit of legislative action, as cited by sources connected with the Park Board, is the insistent threat of the board’s disbandment and the parks system’s dismantling, a cudgel wielded primarily by Ted Heavrin, perennial County Council power broker and an extractor by political nature, who in fairness has made little secret of his desire to sell any and all land of value if a fire sale means that taxes don’t rise.

Surely John Q. Public is mildly surprised to learn that the notion of a Heavrin Memorial Non-Park System even falls into the realm of possibility, albeit remote, considering the widespread assumption that Floyd County’s parklands are the property of the citizens of Floyd County, and designed to be preserved for future enjoyment rather than sold into the eyesore of strip mall bondage.

Indeed, it’s a shock to realize that in the eyes of selected politicians, parks are not parks at all, but assets and chattel to be scrapped in the interest of fiscal expedience, especially in the absence of creativity and courage in devising revenue streams. Floyd County government takes the position that it “owns” Sam Peden Community Park, located within the city limits of New Albany. Conversely, the city of New Albany trumpets that it “owns” the property comprising Valley View Golf Course, located outside the city limits in Floyds Knobs.

While John Q. Public persists in viewing our parks as a long-term investment in quality-of-life park amenities, traditional oligarchic elites look to the likes of Heavrin for guidance, eager to purchase the best of the family jewels if the price is right, and that’s why Floyd County’s last, greatest bastion of cultural philistinism – Floyd County government – constantly flirts with razing a historic structure and paving the last parcel of open frontage inside the Beltway (on Grant Line Road opposite Wal-Mart) into a Lowe’s, or perhaps another big box chain meant to suck money out of the community and contradict every principle of sustainable, “buy local” principle that so few of them have taken the time to comprehend.

But I digress.

What of the mystery donors, who must be protected from scrutiny? There are two, both foundations, and while an ever so slight argument can be made for shyness in the case of the privately administered Blue Sky Foundation, it’s far less in keeping for the second, The Horseshoe Foundation, owing to its hybrid public-private organization.

At the start, given that Fox, the Parks Board and Rep. Clere absolutely were mistaken to have opted for secrecy by shielding the parks district legislation from the scrutiny of daylight, I found it understandable that local elected officials in both the city and county were squawking loudly to the effect that they had not been consulted prior to the park district legislation being introduced. Absolutely, such consultation should have been undertaken.

And yet, once the Horseshoe Foundation is identified as a potential donor, the next question is obvious: “Hmm, I wonder which of these ‘in the dark’ politicians sit on the Foundation’s board?” Here are the answers, asterisked.

*Mr. Mark Seabrook, President
*Mayor Doug England, Vice President
Ms. Eileen Moore, Treasurer
Ms. Judy Hess, Secretary
Mr. Jonathan Jones
*Mr. Kevin Zurschmiede
*Ms. Diane Benedetti

A majority of the Horseshoe Board is made up of four elected officials, each of whom would be surrendering direct local control of the parks (which they were elected to provide) if the legislation passes. But if the Horseshoe Foundation is tying the legislation’s passage to its projected annual donation (in a scenario not unlike the YMCA), how could the four elected officials sitting on the Horseshoe Board not know the legislation was coming?

Either they knew and squawked anyway, or the Horseshoe Foundation Board itself hadn’t been informed of the Foundation’s plans, which seems unlikely.

Well, which is it?

Transparency, anyone?

At the end of the day, there are good and bad intentions but few genuine heroes in this morality play.

Plainly, the decision by parks to pursue a legislative remedy was unnecessarily surreptitious, insofar as public information is concerned. Legitimate concerns about constitutionality have been raised and should have been vetted. There has been too much theater, and too little content. The whole situation has devolved into a protracted (and surreally bi-partisan) hissy fit. It has been absolutely repellant, and this brings us back to the real reason why it matters.

What this should have been about, and has not, is the future disposition of Sam Peden Community Park, Valley View Golf Course and the very entirety and philosophy of Floyd County’s parks system – and why the decision-making apparatus continues to be the domain of political elements keeping the discussion private, as opposed to bathing the public’s interest in sunshine.

The people of Floyd County should be having this discussion because these park lands belong to them – not just to Ted Heavrin or Doug England, and not just the isolated unusable parts not capable of generating development revenue for a big box, subdivision or related extractive project that will impact the grounds for decades to come. It’s simply not something to be decided by used car salesmen in closed session.

I won’t impugn the motives of every public official involved, although enough of them are playing non-transparent games that I must suggest the obvious: If parklands are sufficiently valuable to prompt these behind-the-scenes games, shouldn’t there be an open dialogue, an accessible plan in place, perhaps a form of arbitration between city and county, and a consensus based on the will of the people, and not the number of digits in an offer from a developer?

Verily, of three commissioners, two councils and a mayor, not a single entity among them “owns” these properties. They are owned by the people of Floyd County – aren’t they? The people of Floyd County deserve to know what their elected officials have in mind for these properties, and to consider the available options not after but before a state legislative response rather tragically becomes the “only” recourse that a chronically underfunded and mostly under-appreciated Parks Department feels it possesses in order to protect and administer the parks.

Why haven’t we been talking openly and honestly about our parks?

Why does it always come to games like these?

And: Can we ever progress, or has the instinct been eliminated from our genetic pool?

You tell me.