An Unusual Reliance on Private Funding for City Parks
Sept. 4, 2023
So the Mayor of Houston has finally appointed new members to the public Houston Parks Board, a local government corporation (see also here), in an apparent effort to fill expired and empty positions and comply with the Open Meetings Act.
The board has also announced its first public meeting in almost a year.
However, there may still be a problem.
For one thing, there are still only 18 seats filled out of 20 positions on the public board. And 9 of those seats are occupied by people who are also members of the private parks board foundation, which does not have public meetings. (Another 2 public seats are filled by former members of the private board.) So it seems that if all nine of those public board people met in a closed meeting of the private foundation, that would be a quorum of the public board and a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Yes, it’s confusing. But we’ve been reporting about this issue for several years, advocating for more transparency, accountability, and broader community involvement in the public board. The parks boards, public and private, have done good work (with notable exceptions). The board members, many of them wealthy philanthropists, are dedicated people with a history of public service, including many years of service to the park boards and other worthy causes.
But it is a long-accepted fact that park development favors real estate interests, among the many other benefits to public health and well-being (including reducing flood risk and increasing biodiversity) that green spaces provide.
Heavy Reliance on Private Funding for Parks, Yet Still Below Average Funding Per Capita
Houston has an unusual reliance on private funding for its parks, which may be why our public parks board has been so decidedly private compared to other major cities. It could also be a reason why park development in Houston seems to have favored more affluent areas.
A 2019 study of ten major US cities found that park area in Houston was narrowly spread and skewed towards higher income, higher educated people, a finding reinforced by the city’s 2023 Park Score from the Trust for Public Land. (Note that we are not enthusiastic about the Trust’s use of “living within a ten-minute walk” of a park since in a high-density neighborhood a lot of people could live near a tiny park. Neither do they distinguish between concrete slabs and nature parks.)
Private funding for our city parks is seven times greater than the national average for the top 100 most populous cities, according to the 2023 Trust report. Public funding is two-thirds the national average, with city funding a mere one-third the national average.
Overall the City of Houston spends far below average per capita on parks and recreation.
The open meetings issue was that so many people on the 20-member public parks board were also on the private parks board foundation. So whenever the foundation board met in private they often had a quorum of the public parks board. Which meant the public board was illegally meeting in private. It’s been happening routinely, even intentionally, for many years.
Houston’s public parks board is supposed to have regular public meetings, with public notice, public agendas and public minutes. Among large cities, some of which even televise their parks board meetings, Houston is exceptionally un-public.
Appointed Months Ago
In fact, Mayor Sylvester Turner nominated the new public board members (and renominated some old members) to the city council back in May. On May 31, to be exact. The law requires that the city council approve (or not approve) the nominations.
We don’t closely follow the city council agendas so we missed the nominations, despite the fact that we had written to the mayor’s office in October and in February inquiring about this issue and in March communicated with the mayor’s director of boards and commissions, Olivia Lee, about it. There was no announcement, no polite heads up. However, back in March Lee did send us the link to check the city council agenda for ourselves every week.
When we did finally notice that new board appointments had been made with terms starting May 31, we called Lee’s office to ask for the resumes of those appointed. Those resumes were sent to the city council members with the agenda notice back in May but left off of the agenda published online.
Lee’s helpful suggestion was that we file a Public Information request. Which we did.
Here is what we received from the City about the newly appointed or reappointed members of the public Houston Parks Board, LGC.
The new members and the old members are all highly successful and dedicated people. They include 8 people who are either wealthy philanthropists and/or work in the nonprofit industry, including in economic development, one of them an environmental scientist active in conservation and research; 4 commercial or public finance lawyers, a government lobbyist and 3 former or active public officials, an academic (women’s studies), and 2 in construction or real estate investment and development.
Some have been on the board for nearly a decade or more.
Here is the public board’s financial statement from 2022.