To the surprise of some, a committee tasked with finding uses for money generated by the city’s open space tax has so far funded only improvements to existing parks, putting aside the acquisition of new open space.
An investigation by the Jersey City Times has also revealed that the committee, known as the Open Space Community Advisory Board, has operated in relative obscurity, largely ignoring laws aimed at ensuring governmental transparency; failed to follow a state-mandated process for allocating money; and is rife with potential conflicts of interest.
“I wish the city had acquired new open space in addition to having improved existing parks,” said Cynthia Hadjiyannis. Hadjiyannis was one of the original members of the Advisory Board. “I feel it’s a real missed opportunity.”
Hadjiyannis, a lawyer and former president of the Reservoir Preservation Alliance, was appointed to the Advisory Board by late Ward D Councilman Michael Yun.
Expenditures thus far bear out Hadjiyannis’s criticism. Of $5 million generated by the open space tax, the first $3 million was allocated to 15 park improvement projects across the city, including an estimated $300,000 for new benches and picnic tables for Hamilton Park in Ward E; $500,000 for playground equipment in Ferris Triangle in Ward A; $400,000 to finish the transformation of Reservoir 3 into a park; and renovating Pavonia-Marion Park in Ward C, at a price tag of $500,000. No money was allocated to the purchase of new open space.
However, whether the tax was meant to primarily purchase new open space or enhance existing open space is open to question. Local supporters of the tax spoke of park maintenance when pushing for its adoption. Mayor Fulop said the tax would “help ensure that our parks are maintained and developed along with our city for generations to come.” Said Michael Yun, “I commend Mayor Fulop for his continued commitment to the development and maintenance of Jersey City’s Open Space.” And the explanatory language of the referendum itself said the tax “would fund the acquisition, development, and maintenance of recreational, conservation, and historic lands.” In an ordinance creating the committee, the City Council mentioned “funding for park improvements.”
However, the city’s law itself says the tax may be used among other things for the acquisition, development, and maintenance of “lands acquired for recreation and conservation.”
The history of Jersey City’s legislation also seems to support Hadjiyannis. Before municipalities had the power to establish open space tax funds, a 1989 law gave counties this power — but for the “acquisition of lands for conservation as open space” only. The law said nothing about “development” or “maintenance.”
And in 1996, when the state sought to extend this right to towns and cities, then Governor Christine Todd Whitman wrote that the law would bring about “the acquisition of lands for recreation and conservation purposes; the development or maintenance of these lands.”
Hadjiyannis believes the city may be improperly using funds generated by the tax to pay for projects that should come out of the city’s operations budget. “You can’t fund regular operations out of a special tax you’re imposing that has a special purpose” she said.
“I know we need to maintain the parks … but I’m thinking for the future … If we don’t lock in certain opportunities, we won’t be able to increase our open space,” she said.
At least one Advisory Board member, Marc Wesson, partially agrees with Hadjiyannis. At the group’s September 2022 meeting, he said that the funds should be used for the “acquisition of new open space or improvement of parks that we (already) have.”
Even if funds from the tax can legitimately be used for improvements to existing open space, it appears that the city violated state law governing the allocation of the money.
The law gives each municipality a choice: to either set out in its original open space referendum how the tax revenues would be apportioned amongst the various purposes or decide this matter at a public hearing after the fund has been created. According to information received from City Hall, Jersey City did neither one. Instead, it delegated the decision to the Advisory Board.
The City Council created The Open Space Trust Fund and the Open Space Community Advisory Board following the 2016 referendum. Passed by a margin of 22 percent, the trust fund would be supported by a tax of two cents of every hundred dollars of assessed property. The city estimated the tax would bring in roughly $1.2 million annually; the eleven-member committee would be composed of mayoral appointees from within City Hall and the president of the Jersey City Parks Coalition; each Ward council person would also get a designee.
The board was to meet at least quarterly. And given its organization and function, it would be subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, according to which it would be required to publicize its meeting dates ahead of time and make minutes of each meeting publicly available.
The Jersey City Times submitted Open Public Records Act requests seeking the public notices of — and minutes to — the board’s meetings, but other than the minutes to its April 2019 meeting, none of the requested information was produced. A recent search on the city’s website for upcoming meetings of the board also yielded no information.
Hadjiyannis was also concerned that inbreeding between the board and various city parks groups would lead to bias. “Most of the people who were active in the park groups and part of the Parks Coalition already were the people on the trust, so this is fraught with conflicts of interest,” she said.
And Hadjiyannis thought that less politically connected parks advocates would get short shrift. “The parks most in need won’t have a park group … so it’s not gonna put things on our radar that aren’t on our radar already … I felt like there was potentially a disparate impact.”
Hadjiyannis, who is a lawyer, said she asked Prinz-Arey for the city to develop a conflict-of-interest policy for the board. Prinz-Arey, in turn, asked her to draft one. Hadjiyannis told JCT she didn’t believe it was her job. Board minutes that might reflect whether or not such a policy was ever adopted were not produced.
As to why no new land has been acquired, Hadjiyannis said the Advisory Board may have simply taken the more familiar, simpler path. “It probably seemed more complicated cause ‘Do you have to survey the entire city to figure out what might be for sale, what might be neglected and be a good candidate for eminent domain?’ I don’t know that there’s anyone in the city that knows how to do that.”
How the almost $2 million in open space tax revenues the city had received since the last funding cycle will be used is still unclear. Prinz-Arey said she hoped the group could evaluate applications in the fall and allocate the proceeds early as March 2023. As to what type of project to prioritize, she said, “I don’t want to overload Architecture with too many (parks) improvements.” Rather, she said she’d like at least some of the money to go toward “acquisition or new parks.”
Whenever those decisions get made, Hadjiyannis will not be there to participate in them. This past August she was replaced — without her knowledge — by Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh.
Editor’s Note: According to an anonymous source, members of the committee recused themselves from voting on proposed expenditures that would affect their own park groups.