OK, back in mid-February, when I learned (through The Village Voice) that the Red Hook Ballfields food vendors would be competing for their long-held turf against "two unidentified groups [who] will also bid to run the thriving weekend food market," I sent the Parks Department an e-mail. Who were the anonymous bidders, I asked, thinking I was well within my rights as a citizen to ask.
Today, a speedy three weeks later, I got my reply. Here it is:
Dear Mr. Sheffield:
Thank you for your letter regarding the Red Hook vendors.
We cannot confirm the report in the Village Voice and confidentiality rules prohibit us from saying who responded to the RFP.
We appreciate your interest in Parks.
Office of Public Affairs
That was it.
Now, I'm not playing dumb here. Would someone please explain this to me? Why should they be anonymous? Why should they wish to be anonymous? And, furthermore, why should the Park Department want to protect their anonymity? Red Hook Park is a public park, right? It belongs to the City, which is to say it belongs to the people. Maybe the people don't dictate what goes on in the park, per se—that's what elected and appointed officials are for—but isn't there a certain right to know? Shouldn't the process of running the parks be laid out in the open for all to see and comment on?
If McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts has an interest in selling its stuff in Red Hook Park, why should their interest be kept a secret from those who use the park? How, by any stretch of the imagination, is that a fair or decent way to conduct park business?
Wanting to learn more, I went to the Parks Dept. website are found this:
In 1989, the Revised City Charter established the City's Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) and required that all concessions be awarded through a public solicitation process outlined by the FCRC rules.
FCRC rules. Whazzat? So I looked it up. It stands for Franchise and Concession Review Committee. And this is what I learned about that committee:
The City grants franchises and concessions in accordance with Chapter 14 of the City Charter and the rules proscribed by the Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC). Awards are made in a manner similar to the procurement process, i.e., by using RFPs or competitive sealed bids. MOCS oversees and certifies agency compliance with the applicable laws and regulations for franchises and concessions...
FCRC is comprised of six members - two appointees representing the Mayor, one representing the Law Department, one representing the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), one representing the Comptroller, and one representative from each of the five Borough Presidents, who as a group cast one vote in accord with the location of the franchise or concession at issue.
To award a franchise, the FCRC must conduct a public hearing and approve the franchisee with at least five votes. Concessions, depending on their award method, may or may not require FCRC approval. Awards solicited through competitive sealed bids never require FCRC approval.
Public hearings are held for all "significant" concessions, i.e., those awarded via a method other than competitive sealed bid that either have a term of 10 years or more, or will result in projected annual income to the City of more than $100,000. Concessions awarded via sole source or any other non-competitive method require two FCRC approvals, each with at least four votes. Preliminary approval is required to allow the agency to enter into negotiations. If the concession is significant, a hearing is required. Regardless of the necessity of a hearing a vote is required to finalize the award.
The boldface lines are mine. Now, I don't pretend to understand all the legalese above, but, it would seem the Red Hook Ballfields bidding is a "competitive sealed bid" matter. Also, it is not "significant," since I've heard nothing about any kind of public hearing. So, if I get what I'm reading, the decision about who gets to vend in Red Hook Park will be made without FCRC approval, and without a hearing. The Parks Dept. can just hand it down from on high to whomever it wants.
So, the system is obviously rigged in this case. Big surprise. Still, I have a few questions. I understand the bids are sealed. But does that necessarily mean that the identity of the people who make the bids should also remain a secret? And is this competition really not "significant"?; surely the City stands to make more than $100,000 off whoever wins the right to sell in Red Hook Park.
Before I am accused of being hopelessly naive about the governmental process concerning public parks, let me just say I am no Robert Moses; I don't know how to decipher opaque government language in the wink of an eye. I am aware I may not be fully grasping the meaning behind all this verbiage. If so, please speak up; I welcome anyone out there to explain how this whole bidding system works. But I will be very surprised if anyone gives me an explanation that justifies the bidders for Red Hook Park's need to hide behind masks.