HE’S PACKING TO GO, BUT PARKS GUY STERN WOULD STAY, IF ASKED

On the morning of Jan. 18, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, a

puckish smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, delivered his annual-and

ostensibly last-State of the Parks address at the department’s headquarters in

Central Park. The mood was nostalgic, as the onetime maverick and full-time

eccentric reflected on his 15 years as Parks Commissioner. “I believe in

evolution, not divine creation,” Mr. Stern told his audience.

A month into the Bloomberg administration, with nearly every

major Mayoral appointment in place, evolution at the Parks Department

continues, but Mr. Stern remains in stasis. According to sources close to Mr.

Bloomberg, Mr. Stern has embarked on a full-out charm offensive with his new

boss, even as the Mayor has searched in vain for a suitable replacement. Also,

the sources said, former Mayor Giuliani went to bat for Mr. Stern, urging his

successor to keep the longest-reigning Parks Commissioner since Robert Moses.

Mr. Bloomberg said at a recent press conference that Mr. Stern

was assisting in the selection of his own successor and would be welcome in the

Mayor’s kitchen cabinet. On the surface, Mr. Stern, too, has given the

impression of benignly handing himself over to the winds of fate. “I came

cheerfully and, when it’s time, I’ll go cheerfully,” he said in a recent

interview with The Observer .

Behind the scenes, however, the commissioner’s allies-most

prominently Mr. Giuliani-have been lobbying on behalf of Mr. Stern. According

to a source close to the former Mayor, on the last night of his administration

Mr. Giuliani asked his successor to keep Mr. Stern on as a personal favor. Mr.

Bloomberg himself has had nothing but the highest praise for Mr. Stern. “Mike

thinks Henry’s absolutely terrific; he likes his goofiness,” Public Advocate

Betsy Gotbaum told The Observer.

“Henry has had more lives than a cat, so I wouldn’t rule anything

out,” said Adrian Benepe, the Parks Department’s borough commissioner for

Manhattan, referring to Mr. Stern’s ability to work for a Democrat (Ed Koch)

and a Republican (Mr. Giuliani). Mr. Benepe is currently considered to be a

front-runner for Mr. Stern’s job.

Not everyone in the new administration, however, shares Mr. Bloomberg’s

rosy view of the Parks Commissioner. Mr. Bloomberg’s transition team reportedly

was less than excited about the prospect of retaining Mr. Stern, according to a

source close to Mr. Bloomberg. And yet, nearly a month into the new

administration, Mr. Stern still rules his emerald empire from his office in the

Arsenal on Fifth Avenue. So far, he has outlasted all serious attempts to find

a replacement. Early candidates like Houston Parks Commissioner Oliver Spellman

Jr. (formerly a New York City Parks employee) and former Prospect Park Alliance

chairwoman Tupper Thomas interviewed for the job but reportedly fell short of

Mr. Bloomberg’s expectations. The transition team was more successful in

pushing forward San Francisco Recreation and Park Department director Elizabeth

Goldstein (also a former New York City Parks employee) and was elated when Mr.

Bloomberg gave her the thumbs-up-only to watch slack-jawed as Ms. Goldstein

subsequently declined the offer. (Patricia Harris, the deputy mayor for

administration who oversees the Department of Parks and Recreation, would not

comment on the specifics of the selection process.)

Mr. Stern has often delighted in premature rumors of his own

demise. First appointed Parks Commissioner in 1983 under Mr. Koch (a childhood

friend), he was replaced seven years later when David Dinkins appointed Ms.

Gotbaum. When Mr. Dinkins lost his re-election bid to Mr. Giuliani in 1993, Mr.

Stern replaced Ms. Gotbaum the following year.

Even if Mr. Stern is replaced-as is expected-he’ll be remembered

for a colorful and controversial tenure. In the last eight years alone, he has

added more than 2,000 acres of new parkland and created programs like 2001

Greenstreets, a project that transformed 2,000 traffic islands of gray concrete

throughout the city into miniature flower gardens. Mr. Stern, whose creative

budgetary solutions in the face of decreased funding alternately elicited

praise and raised eyebrows, went along with the Giuliani administration’s plan

to dispatch nearly 7,000 welfare recipients to jobs tending the city’s parks

and playgrounds.

Though he carefully crafted an image as the resident eccentric of

municipal government, Mr. Stern also was dogged by controversy, particularly in

the last few years. In 1999, employee complaints of racial discrimination led

to an investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The  agency found “reasonable cause” to

substantiate the claims. Mr. Stern dismissed the allegations. “The racial stuff

happens when you appoint people on merit,” he said in a recent interview. “In

today’s world, [people] play the race card; it happens in every organization.”

A federal class-action suit filed in March 2001 in federal court by 12

employees is still pending.

Mr. Stern’s budgetary machinations managed to get him in hot

water as well. In 2000, the department came under fire for charging exorbitant

fees (labeled “donations”) for recreation-center memberships, tree-removal

permits and events held in the city’s parks. The City Council held a series of

hearings; the Comptroller’s office released an audit; and the Parks Department

pledged to mend its ways. (A spokesman for the Comptroller’s office said

several portions of the audit are pending and are expected to be released some

time this spring.)

Passive Bystander?

But many parks activists have reserved their most scathing

criticism for Mr. Stern’s appearing passive in the face of the budget cuts.

“Very few people in the parks arena are boosters of Henry,” said Gene

Russianoff, a senior attorney with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“The view in the parks world is that … they hold Henry responsible that he

wasn’t able to get the parks funding.”

“If you’re around long enough, there are always going to be

people who hate you, who are going to sue you or give a ticket to your dog. It

comes with the territory,”   countered

Mr. Stern, pointing out that Mr. Giuliani had increased the Parks Department’s

capital budget by $200 million since fiscal year 1994. “It’s absolutely

ridiculous. If you’re part of an administration, you do all you can to fight

for funding, and you don’t denounce your employer publicly if you want to

continue working for him.”

Not even the commissioner’s harshest critics, however, can deny

that Mr. Stern has brought an unrivaled devotion to the city’s parks. A career

public servant who surrounded himself with an enclave of similarly minded parks

lovers, Mr. Stern recruited heavily among Ivy League schools and amassed a

cadre of devoted young graduates who might have otherwise entered more

lucrative positions in the private sector. “There has never been and never will

be anyone like Henry Stern,” said Mr. Benepe. “When history is written, he’ll

probably be mentioned in the same breath as Al Smith and  La Guardia.”

Mr. Stern’s State of the Parks address-with white-gloved park

rangers standing at mock-solemn attention as guests tucked into plates laden

with asparagus, salmon and fresh mozzarella-bore the flourishes that have

become emblematic of the commissioner’s reign: always festive, more than a bit

tongue-in-cheek, anything but humdrum civil service. “Bureaucracy is a very

difficult and troublesome thing; it’s like Gulliver being trapped by all those

little people,” Mr. Stern told his audience. “Most people can’t get through it

because they haven’t spent 40 years doing it.”

But while Mr. Stern may want nothing more than to continue doing

the job he loves, in the end he, too, was forced to acknowledge the

inevitability of evolution. “I will always be faithful to the parks movement,”

he told his colleagues, “wherever I may be found.”