In December 2008, I offered a resolution to improve Oakwood Park by constructing one turf field, re-grading the remaining field, and expanding the parking lot. The improvements would have been paid for with surplus funds and a small, low-interest bond that would have cost the average taxpayer a few dollars per month. Under my plan, the new field would have opened on August 1, 2009. My colleagues on the Council did not support the plan, and the resolution failed.
A month later, in January 2009, Mayor John Thoms announced that he had struck a deal for Union County to take ownership of the park, and spend $3.5 million from the County’s open space trust fund to install two turf fields, an expanded parking lot, and a new club house. In his announcement, Mr. Thoms represented that New Providence would retain complete legal control over the improved park, and that it would be a County park in name only.
Initially, I regarded the deal as an opportunity to remedy substandard conditions caused by overuse – which has always been a priority of mine as a Councilman. I spoke with County officials, walked Oakwood Park with them, and received repeated assurances that New Providence would retain full legal control over Oakwood Park under the deal that they had struck with Mr. Thoms. County officials also assured me that we could retake ownership of the park if we ever became dissatisfied with the arrangements. Based on these representations, I initially voiced public support for deeding Oakwood Park to Union County.
However, as the Council began negotiating with Union County, I found that the deal was quite different than the one that Mayor Thoms had announced. During the negotiations, I asked the County to include its oral promises in the memorandum of understanding, the contract of sale, and the deed conveying the property. Surprisingly, my requests were denied.
Recognizing that New Providence would be giving up a very large and important asset, I wanted to ensure that we would always have a legally enforceable right to receive the benefits now being promised by the County. So I requested that three specific provisions be included in the memorandum of understanding, contract of sale, and deed. First, I asked for a reverter clause, which would automatically return ownership of Oakwood Park to New Providence – at no cost to the Borough – if Union County ever breaches any agreement or promise relating to the use and maintenance of the park. Second, I asked that we agree upon a schedule for depreciating the value of the improvements, and include a provision empowering New Providence to purchase the park from the County, at its then-depreciated value, at any time we might choose to do so. Third, I asked for a provision giving New Providence full legal control over scheduling events in Oakwood Park. However, during a face-to-face meeting with County officials, each of my requests was denied.
Worse yet, the County responded to my requests by insisting that the legal documents include a provision limiting our right to retake ownership of the park. Because of this provision, there is no real possibility that the Borough could ever get the park back, even if the County fails to live up to its promises. At the County’s insistence, the legal documents must include a term providing that New Providence may only reacquire Oakwood Park if Union County fails to accommodate a scheduling request twice in one year. In such cases, New Providence would have 90 days to come up with $3.5 million to repurchase the park – regardless of the age and condition of the turf fields, club house, and parking lots. In other words, if the County fails to accommodate Borough scheduling requests 10 years from now, New Providence could only repurchase Oakwood Park by paying Union County the full, original cost of improvements that will, by then, have depreciated in value -- without regard to the condition of those improvements. Moreover, the provision leaves New Providence without any legal recourse to enforce any other promises that the County is now making.
The memorandum of understanding provides that Union County will have full legal control over all matters at Oakwood Park, and New Providence will have none. While supporters of County ownership continue to insist that the Borough would retain control, this is simply not true.
It’s also important to clear up confusion over who is getting the $3.5 million in improvements. In reality, the County is not offering New Providence anything at all. If we sell the park for $1, then the County promises to borrow $3.5 million to improve a park that will be owned by the County – not by New Providence. Under the Mayor’s deal, New Providence is not, and will not, receive any money from the County’s open space trust fund. The County intends to borrow money to spend on its own park, and it intends to retain full legal control over use and scheduling.
If Mayor Thoms had negotiated a good deal with the County – or at least the one that he announced in January 2009 – I would continue to support County ownership. The County’s refusal to give back the park if it fails to live up to its promises is simply unacceptable to me. The County’s refusal to allow us to repurchase the park at its depreciated value is also unacceptable. To me, these are very reasonable provisions that would protect New Providence from a deal gone bad.
Control over use and scheduling is important. That’s why the County refuses to give up legal control, and it’s why even supporters of County ownership talk so much about who will be in control of use and scheduling.
There is simply no truth to the claim that New Providence will have legal control over use and scheduling. The truth – which is found in the plain and unambiguous language of the memorandum of understanding-- is that if Oakwood Park is sold to the County for $1, then the County will have full legal control, and New Providence will have no viable recourse if the County ever fails to live up to its end of the bargain.
So for me, it comes down to this: No legal control, no legal recourse, no county park. And that’s how I got to “No”.