Trouble is brewing regarding Morris Court Park. City Council member Jewel CANNADA-WYNN wants to close permanently the Morris Court Park and return it to the Area Housing Commission. However, Cannada-Wynn's actions, particularly the timing of her actions and what she has said about the park, raises serious doubts about the real motivations for the park's closure and return to the Housing Commission. And, when considered in the larger national context, the stated reason for the park's return to the Area Housing Commission--providing low-income seniors and special needs persons with housin--might never be accomplished. The park should be re-opened, new equipment provided, and the mayor, Cannada-Wynn, and the Housing Commission, revealing all of their backroom wheeling and dealing.
Morris Court Park is located at the intersection of N J Street and W Brainerd Street, according to a map provided by the City of Pensacola to the City Council for the April 13, 2017, for its consideration on agenda item 17-00228.
This agenda item was co-sponsored by the Pensacola Mayor Ashton HAYWARD and Council member Cannada-Wynn for the expressed purpose of returning the park to the Area Housing Authority on the grounds that the December 2016 University of West Florida's "Parks Needs Assessment" found that "the City’s parks system is overbuilt to an unsustainable level. Based on that finding, the UWF report recommended that the City strategically reduce the number of parks and amenities it maintains and improve service by consolidating resources into regional parks," according to the City Council's agenda item proposal.
It is important to note that Council member Cannada-Wynn and the mayor were careful not to state that the UWF study recommended closing Morris Court Park. CJ's Street Report submitted a public records request to the city for the UWF study.
According to the City Council's agenda item, the return of the park was requested via letter from the Area Housing Authority dated September 16, 2016, to Mr. Keith WILKINS, the Assistant City Administrator. But that letter, included in the City Council agenda item 17-00228 and first reported in a Rick's Blog article dated November 14, 2016, also states that City Council member Cannada-Wynn had met with Dr. Abe SINGH, executive director of the Area Housing Commission, prior to September 15, 2016. On September 15, 2016, Dr. Singh had called Mr. Wilkins.
The backroom machinations between Council member Cannada-Wynn, Dr. Singh, and Mr. Wilkins all pre-date the final results of the University of West Florida's "Parks Needs Assessment" by precisely 78 days (15 September to 01 December), not including when exactly Cannada-Wynn first contacted or was contacted by the Area Housing Commission.
Thus, the selection of the Morris Court Park for closure was pre-determined well in advance of the public release of the UWF "Parks Needs Assesssment" study which did not, apparently, specifically recommend that this specific park should be "strategically reduced."
This has all the makings of a backroom deal concocted off the record and out of public view by Mayor Ashton, Keith Wilkins (Assistant City Administrator), City Council member Cannada-Wynn, and Dr. Singh of the Area Housing Commission.
THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
Rick's Blog was the first to report, based on first-hand observations, that "Residents and homeowners in the area have told Inweekly that they aren’t happy about losing their playground. Commissioner Lumon MAY grow [sic] up in the Morris Court area and worries about the impact of losing the playground. He said that he would like to have a town hall meeting to get input for the families in the neighborhood." Rick's Blog further reported that it observed that "playground had been chained and padlocked. A “Danger” signs hung on the gates. The playground equipment was old and needed repair.... A parent said the playground had been closed for months."
C.J. LEWIS, a city resident who recently ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat and follows city politics closely (full disclosure: a friend of mine), noted in a comment on the Rick's Blog article that Cannada-Wynn's action was highly suspect.
According to Lewis: "Not discussed here or in the agenda item is why Morris Court Park is 'Permanently Closed' as it says on Google Map. However, if you look on the city’s website they have pretty pictures of the children’s play equipment and the basketball courts with no indication the park is closed. Someone should explain why the park was closed in the first place and by who and when. In 2014, the Proposed Project list for Extension of Local Option Sales Tax lists $90,000 for 'Replace equipment' at Morris Court Park.... During the Women for Responsible Legislation candidate forum held on September 22 in city hall Cannada-Wynn said that District 7 had gotten more than its fair share and did not need anything more.... There probably is a very interesting trail of public records to piece together on this issue. I attended the full duration of all budget workshops in August and budget hearings in September. I cannot recall Cannada-Wynn objecting to funding in the budget for Morris Court Park."
Taking C.J. Lewis's suggestions, perhaps the Area Housing Commission and Council member Cannada-Wynn will disclose to the city's residents and City Council the contents of all the meetings they had on or prior to September 15, 2016, as well as the Area Housing Commission disclosing its internal and external discussions of why exactly it needed the return of Morris Court Park. Who is really going to profit from this return?
Rick's Blog reported in its November 14, 2016, article that Cannada-Wynn, one week after her successful re-election campaign, requested that the City Council consider returning Morris Court Park to the Area Housing Commission. Rick's Blog linked to a City Council document for that day's (Monday) Agenda Review (14 NOV) for the City Council meeting on 17 NOV (Thursday).
But, what did Cannada-Wynn say between Monday and Thursday?
On 15 NOV, Cannada-Wynn, as a member of the Westside Redevelopment Board, according to the official minutes, told the WRB (pdf page 4): "Ms. Cannada-Wynn indicated there was a concern with activities at the Morris Court Park, and it has been difficult for the neighborhood. She has been working with the neighborhood to institute a plan to deal with some of the concerns."
According to the official minutes, it sounds like Cannada-Wynn is "concerned" about the Morris Court Park and is "working with the neighborhood" to "deal with some of the concerns."
Has she been lying to the neighborhood? Was she lying to the Westside Redevelopment Board?
How can Cannada-Wynn reconcile that she was meeting in quasi-secrecy with the Area Housing Commission discussing returning the Morris Court Park to the AHC, while telling the neighborhood and the Westside Redevelopment Board that she is working with the neighborhood to "deal with" their concerns, presumbably to keep the park open and functioning?
Something is definitely not right here. Both Cannada-Wynn and the Area Housing Commission, as well as the Mayor's office, need to come clean, as difficult as that may be for some of them.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
According to the City Council's agenda item 17-00228 and the included letter from Dr. Singh to Mr. Wilkins, the entire purpose of depriving the children of a local neighborhood park is to provide "low income apartment rental opportunities on the property for seniors and people with special needs."
But, that purpose is probably dead on arrival.
According to a Washington Post article, "Trump budget asks for $6 billion in HUD cuts, drops development grants," the Trump administration is going to gut the Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to the Post, Trump will "eliminate funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, which supports a wide range of urban-renewal projects and received $3 billion in funding for 2017.... [R]ecommended for elimination are the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, the Choice Neighborhoods program and the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program. Cutting those programs—which help redevelop low-income neighborhoods and encourage homeownership..."
In other words, unless the City of Pensacola and the miserly State of Florida are going to provide the funds to the Area Housing Commission, which would provide the "public" side of the money for the "public-private partnership" buzzword for privatization of public property, there probably isn't any money for the "low income apartment rental opportunities on the property for seniors and people with special needs."
So, will the City of Pensacola re-open Morris Court Park with new equipment it has already budgeted for? Will Cannada-Wynn apologize for her backroom dealing to close the park and, generously speaking, misleading neighborhood residents about her true objectives and motivations? Will the City Council request that the Area Housing Commission come clean on its hidden agenda? In this city nothing is for certain. I will not hold my breath waiting.