The Parks Department last week backed off from Parks boss Scott Ferris’ April 8 legal-sounding claim that T1 bond money could not be used for park restrooms or other new structures. The department’s retreat, according to senior Parks analyst Roger Miller, came after a recent meeting between Ferris and unnamed Berkeley City attorneys who “clarified” that replacement of temporary restrooms with permanent restrooms was well within the eligible scope of T1 bond spending.
The City attorneys’ “clarification” kills the assertion Ferris made at the April 8 public hearing on T1 spending to the effect that the T1 bond barred the addition of new “structures” to existing parks. Ferris argued vehemently at that meeting that T1 money couldn’t be used to replace porta-potties with permanent restrooms because the temporary plastic units were not “structures.” To replace them with permanent units would mean “adding structures” and the bond didn’t allow that, Ferris claimed. This highly legalistic argument met with open skepticism from several Parks and Public Utility commissioners present who were familiar with the T1 bond language. Ferris nevertheless persisted in it.
Ferris’ claim would have slashed not only permanent restrooms in Cesar Chavez Park, but also “planning” for permanent restrooms at the Gilman playing fields. More broadly, Ferris’ position would have doomed the construction of several bioswales, new constructions for abating floodwaters on major streets. While Ferris has turned a deaf ear to new restrooms for parks, despite the obvious need and widespread public support, both the $250,000 Gilman Fields “restroom planning” project and the million-dollar bioswales projects are on Ferris’ list of approved jobs for T1 spending.
Ferris April 8 argument not only cut a broader swath of destruction than he probably anticipated, it also flew in the face of an earlier written statement to City Council by Ferris’ boss, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, in which she included “Restrooms — Renovations, additions, or restroom replacements in City parks” among the priorities for T1 bond expenditures. Unless he doesn’t read the Parks Commission’s agenda packets, Ferris had to be aware of Williams-Ridley’s statement, because a copy of it was distributed at the June 8, 2016 commission meeting, which Ferris is on record as having attended.
There is nothing on the official record to suggest that the City Manager or anyone else above Ferris’ level of authority changed their view about the scope of T1 bond money between the City Manager’s 2016 statement saying yes on bathrooms and Ferris’ April 8 opinion to the contrary. A Parks spokesperson responded to a public records request last week with a denial that any documents on this topic existed.
The lack of documents to support Ferris’ April 8 claim suggests that Ferris simply made up this legal-sounding argument on the spur of the moment in face of growing support by the commissioners present for replacing porta-potties with permanent bathrooms in the parks. Ferris similarly had no evidence to back up his claim to City Council on April 4 that new parks bathrooms in Cesar Chavez and elsewhere would cost $800,000 for each bathroom. A public records request showed that nothing — no contractor bids, no engineering reports, no market research — backed up those exorbitant numbers. Ferris just made them up.
Ferris is not against permanent restrooms for some people. He favors spending a ridiculous $600,000 to build another permanent bathroom on the south side of the Marina for windsurfers and kayakers, in an area already served by three other permanent bathrooms. But Ferris thinks that porta-potties are just fine for ordinary park users who don’t own any watercraft. The Parks boss’ bogus numbers and flim-flam legal claims reveal a profound contempt for park visitors. If Ferris gave a damn about park visitors, especially for families with women and children, and if Ferris cared at all about the image that porta-potties project for the City of Berkeley, Ferris would be in the forefront of advocacy for better bathrooms. If Ferris had done even half an hour of market research, he would be aware that modern park restrooms with flush toilets and sinks for handwashing can be had for less than one tenth the price of Ferris’ numbers. Instead, Ferris’ staff blocked information about the real cost of sanitary bathrooms from the March 18 public hearing.
Ferris as Parks boss is a holdover from the Bates administration, which voters decisively dumped last November. It was the received wisdom under Bates that our parks were overstressed and underfunded. Undoubtedly there was truth to that. But given Ferris’ dismal inaction and lack of integrity on the parks restroom issue, the question has to be asked to what extent the blame for poor parks maintenance rests at Ferris’ doorstep. Cesar Chavez and some other parks have had stinky porta-potties for 25 years, and Ferris has done nothing. The Berkeley municipal pier has been shut for three years, and Ferris has done nothing. The Aquatic Park link tubes have been derelict for at least five years, and Ferris has done nothing. Many other parks have similar stories to tell. Money is not the only problem, and more money is not going to be the only solution to the city’s parks problem. The unsolved problem is substandard leadership at the top of the department. We have voted $100 million more in infrastructure money. We need a new Parks director with the integrity, the empathy for park visitors, the get-things-done spirit, and the competence to spend that money effectively.