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Council members worry about money’s influence on park naming

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

More than four years ago, when the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) was trying to come up with names for the park situated next to the Long Center for the Performing Arts, they received 21 nominations from individuals around the city. In the end City Council elected to call the plot Butler Park (beating out Town Lake Park), in honor of Michael Butler, an Irish immigrant who ran a successful business on the land in the 1800s and whose family donated it to the city in 1941. But the complicated nominating process convinced PARD an amendment to the park-naming process was in order.

At the City Council work session on Tuesday, the department brought forward an ordinance amending the City Code that would, according to department Assistant Director Kim McNeeley, provide much-needed criteria and a system of evaluation that would be clear to anyone looking to nominate a name for enshrinement. Some Council members, however, worried that criteria would favor wealthy patrons over the historical and cultural priorities of the community.

“We believe parkland and the naming of parkland is a significant decision,” McNeeley said. “It’s a forever decision, and we don’t want to take that decision lightly, but we’d also like to give individuals guidelines.”

The problem with those new guidelines, at least according to Council Member Kathie Tovo, is that they would give too much weight to the names of individuals or organizations willing to spend millions to endow entire district or metropolitan parks and not enough to individuals who have managed to cobble together enough signatures in support of a figure of historical or cultural significance.

Tovo pointed in particular to language of the new ordinance listing the people or groups parks can be named for as proof that the department’s naming priorities are skewed toward parties with money. The ordinance states that a park facility can be named or renamed for 1) a person or group that deeds the land for the park, 2) a person or group that contributes the cost of the development of the park, 3) a person or group who provides an endowment for the anticipated 20-year maintenance costs of the park, or 4) a person “of community significance … or (who) has made exceptional contributions to the betterment of the community or the park system.” 

To Tovo, the order of that list suggests priorities that aren’t in line with Austin community values.

“The changes seem to put the priority on those who can come forward with a financial contribution,” Tovo said. “Public facilities should be named for people who have had historical culturally significant roles in the community, and that does not seem to be the priority. … Just in the hierarchy of how these are listed it’s very clear that if you bring money to the table at the Parks Department that’s your best opportunity for getting a facility named after you.”

Parks staffers say they came up with the ordinance to both “enhance the public involvement component and to create a financial contribution component” in the naming process, not to prioritize one over the other. The public involvement component requires the collection of signatures from within the service area of the park.

Tovo’s fellow Council members for the most part agreed with her about the need to change the language to put the two components on more equal footing, but they also stressed that if Austin is going to build more parks it will need to start finding endowments or at least more public-private partnerships, which could result in parks being named after donating individuals and groups, not just important Austin figures.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said she “strongly believe(s) we need more money from our parks,” specifically from endowments. Council Member Chris Riley, meanwhile, said that though the amendment ordinance needs language adjustments, it was a “good first effort at addressing as issue that’s been lingering out there.”

“There’s a very valuable role to be played by private contributions like the one’s contemplated in this ordinance,” Riley said. “We need to maximize our opportunity to make use of those sorts of possibilities when they arise.”

But Council Member Laura Morrison said the endowment process, though valuable, needs to happen in such a way that everything is kept on what she called an “even keel.”

“We’ve got the tail wagging the dog here,” Morrison said. The city, she continued, should encourage endowments and public-private partnerships but not give people the “sense that you can go out and buy a park name.”

Though no vote was taken, Council asked PARD staff to take the item off this week’s City Council agenda and tweak the language of the ordinance to address their concerns.

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