Hoo boy—just when you’d think the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy could get some peace and quiet, what with Occupy Boston decamped and a mostly empty calendar, the Boston Herald suddenly discovers that Nancy Brennan doesn’t know how to use e-mail. While it’s certainly amusing to read Brennan’s panicked typing, the grousing about her salary as Exeuctive Director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy misses the point; the Conservancy will never be completely open and transparent to the public, or use public funds efficiently. And it’s all our fault.

First, let me recap the current kerfuffle. Confronted with a request from Boston Herald reporter for her current salary, Brennan, the Greenway’s executive director, attempted to e-mail her public relations consultant Lisa Quackenbush to ask what to do… and sent her e-mail to the reporter instead. As a result, the Herald published this message:

“What do you think about: 1. My writing her with the FY12 salary of 185,000 as of July 1,” Brennan wrote, noting that the documents now publicly available date only to 2010. Those documents show her base salary at $162,000. Brennan suggested: “a. Ignore; b. Write her now; c. Respond after deadline later tonight… Brennan later emailed the Herald reporter and declined to provide current salaries for herself or her staff, citing staff privacy, and directed the reporter to the group’s most recent 990 nonprofit corporation tax forms, which cover calendar year 2010.”

The best tweet I’ve seen about the situation, by @JaneCarpenter, reads: “Don’t let this happen to you! Call your PR pro on the phone, Rose Kennedy Greenway exec learns the hard way…http://bit.ly/zDRCH9.”

(Let me note here that anyone with an internet connection can look up the salaries of the top executives at any organization the IRS considers a nonprofit  by looking through their IRS form 990 filings at Guidestar.org (free registration required). The most recent years are often missing, as are bonuses, but you can get an idea of what’s going on.)

The Herald reported that Brennan’s salary has been bumped as high as $225K, thanks to generous bonuses, and that the Greenway parks cost $300K per year per acre to maintain. Various state representatives have been demanding more transparency for Greenway finances, as has Richard Davey, the Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which owns the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Brennan responded in an interview with Meghna Charkabarti on WBUR, where Charkabarti noted that the Greenway maintenance figures are in line with expenses for other urban parks with lots of pavement, electrical fixtures, fountains and the like, like New York City’s Battery Park City and the High Line.

So what do we do with this information?

Nothing.

Nancy Brennan’s salary is, in and of itself, meaningless. The entire Greenway budget is re-enacting the Big Dig’s fiscal management. Here’s what the Boston Globe had to say about Greenway finances in 2005:

“Current estimates are that the Greenway parks, which are being more elaborately designed than most of the other parks in the city, will cost $2.5 million to $3.5 million annually for upkeep. A 5 percent annual return on a $50 million endowment would yield $2.5 million. It is the board’s task to raise that money.”

…and the Boston Herald on January 25, 2012:

“The conservancy, which originally was formed to maintain the Greenway without public funding, has received more than $15 million in state funds since 2005, including more than $2.5 million for last year’s $4.7 million budget.”

Got that? According to the 2005 estimates, the state’s contribution should pay for the entire Greenway budget—and the state shouldn’t be giving the Greenway any money at all. You can read more about the Conservancy’s budget here.

And here is the crux of the problem: the Greenway Conservancy was created to run a park that no one wanted to fund. Now, the State Department of Transportation owns the Greenway, while the Conservancy maintains the parks (leading to occasional problems with garbage collection.) So we’ve got the worst of all possible worlds: a tiny organization that can’t take advantage of the Boston Parks Department’s expertise or equipment, that keeps current staff salaries secret, and that violates open meeting laws. We can’t stop funding this major park right in the middle of Boston because it could fall apart—how tragic! How embarrassing!— but the Greenway can’t run parks as cheaply as the city (and it isn’t), and it is not directly accountable to the public.

Over the past few years, the Greenway staff have done a great job of making the Greenway more welcoming to visitors (except for Occupy Boston). But make no mistake: we are paying for it. Nancy Brennan’s salary is a side issue. The real problem is that the Greenway is an expensive privately-run park on public land that is subsidized by  Massachusetts taxpayers. Brennan compares the Greenway to the High Line and Battery Park City, but the High Line is a public park run by the city of New York, and Battery Park City is privately owned; neither of those parks are run as a green welfare mishmash like the Greenway.

So complain all you like. Nothing is going to change unless the Greenway is made into a public park, or completely privatized and has to raise all its own funds—a condition which tends to encourage thrift. Nancy Brennan may be awkward with technology and public disclosures, but she isn’t doing anything new. The Greenway has never been comfortable with disclosure of its finances; there were complaints about its secrecy in 2010. The difference is that now, people are beginning to notice.

The Greenway’s lease is up for renewal in 2014. If you want Greenway management to change, start making plans.

 

For more on the Rose Kennedy Greenway from Meg Muckenhoupt, check out the following posts:

Or, even better, plan to attend her upcoming talk hosted by the Boston Preservation Alliance at the Old South Meeting House in downtown Boston. More information can be found here.

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green Spaces.  She is a freelance environmental and travel writer. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, the Time Out Boston guide, and many other publications. She holds a certificate in Field Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society.