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Henry J. Stern

HENRY J. STERN, Co-Founder and President

Henry Stern’s career in public service has spanned fifty years of New York City politics. A native New Yorker, Stern attended public schools in upper Manhattan and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1950. He entered City College at 15 and graduated in 1954. At CCNY, he was vice president of the student government, managing editor of the newspaper Observation Post, and president of the Young Liberals. He then attended Harvard Law School where he was president of the Harvard Law Record, the student newspaper.

In 1957, Stern began his career in government as a law clerk for New York State Supreme Court Justice Matthew M. Levy.

In January 1962, Stern was appointed Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan by Borough President Edward R. Dudley, who President Truman had previously appointed the first African-American Ambassador in United States history. Stern continued in this position under Borough President Constance Baker Motley, the first woman elected to that office, and later, by appointment of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the first African-American woman to serve on the federal bench.

In 1966, Stern joined Mayor Lindsay’s administration as Executive Director of the New York City Parks Department by appointment of Commissioner Thomas Hoving. After a year at Parks, Stern moved to Deputy Mayor Timothy W. Costello’s office, where he served as Assistant City Administrator. In 1969, Bess Myerson, Lindsay’s newly appointed commissioner of Consumer Affairs, appointed Stern her first deputy. Four years later, he continued in the post under Myerson’s successor, Betty Furness.

In 1973, and again in 1977, Stern was elected City Councilman-at-large from Manhattan, as a candidate of the Liberal Party—the last member of that party to be elected to public office. In the Council, he introduced smoke-free and gay rights bills which were passed years later. A law he sponsored that was passed requires that photographs of any building be submitted before a demolition permit is granted by the City.

On February 14, 1983, after nine years in the Council, Stern was appointed New York City Parks Commissioner by Mayor Edward I. Koch. In 1989, Stern founded the Historic House Trust, which unified 23 historic houses across the city to better insure their preservation, and the City Parks Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that builds public-private partnerships to care for and grow green spaces and conduct recreation programs. He also founded the Natural Resources Group, an environmental guardianship team of park employees.

After seven years in the Koch administration, at the end of the Mayor’s term, Stern was selected by his former colleague in the Council, Robert F. Wagner Jr., to be President of Citizens Union, the city’s oldest extant good government organization. In 1991, while at Citizens Union, he formed 7A (American Association for the Advancement and Appreciation of Animals in Art and Architecture), which conducts safaris to view the most beautiful local examples of animal sculpture in architecture. Stern and current NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe are co-top dogs of 7A.

In 1994, Stern was reappointed parks commissioner by Mayor Giuliani, and remained in that position for eight years. As commissioner, Stern was credited with improving the cleanliness and safety of New York City’s 1,700 parks and playgrounds. Most notably, Central Park was substantially restored, in partnership with the Central Park Conservancy, which raised over three hundred million dollars in public funds, the largest such private gift in City history.

He also acquired several thousand acres of additional parkland for the city, most coming from other agencies, created over 2,000 “Greenstreets” at traffic intersections, and erected 2,500 historic signs and 800 yardarms for city park flagpoles. Over his 15 years as Parks Commissioner, Stern built over a billion dollars worth of park improvements as part of the capital construction programs of Mayors Koch and Giuliani.

Stern is most proud of the hundreds of young people he brought into public service by actively recruiting college seniors. Many went on to distinguished careers in public service, including former NYC Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler, current NYC Environmental Protection Commissioner Caswell Holloway, and Bradley Tusk, former Deputy Governor of Illinois.

After Stern retired from government at the close of the Giuliani Administration, Mayor Bloomberg appointed him to the board of directors of the Hudson River Park Trust. He is also a director of the Battery Park Conservancy and the Greenbelt Conservancy. In addition, Stern is an advisory board member of The Greenwich (CT) Tree Conservancy and has served as a trustee of Trees New York for the past 25 years.

Stern has received several honors in recognition of his environmental protection efforts, including the National Audubon Society Lifetime Achievement Award and the City Club Earthling Award for Environmental Excellence.

In 2000, Stern was granted an honorary doctorate by City College. He is a past president of the City College Alumni Association and is a recipient of the John H. Finley Medal, the Association’s highest honor, and the Townsend Harris Medal.

In February 2002, Stern, along with Alan M. Moss, former first deputy parks commissioner, co-founded New York Civic to promote good government and advocate for political reform in New York City and New York State. Since then, Stern has written nearly 750 articles on public policy, a number of which have been reprinted in The Huffington Post, New York Post, New York Sun, and various other publications. His articles, which generally are published twice a week, are subscribed to by an email list of over 12,000 readers.

In March 2010, Stern joined forces with former Mayor Koch and Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey to found New York Uprising, a nonpartisan, independent coalition aimed at putting an end to corruption in Albany and restoring the public’s faith in government. Among the trustees of New York Uprising are many of the City and State’s most esteemed former elected and appointed officials.

In the last election cycle, New York Uprising successfully lobbied the majority of the state legislature and candidates for statewide office, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, to sign a pledge that they would pass historic legislation creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission, support a stronger ethics code, and enact budgetary reform. It remains to be seen to what extent these pledges will be honored.

Stories from Henry J. Stern

Democrats Take City Hall
After 12 Bloomberg Years
And Eight Under Giuliani
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Monday, December 30th, 2013

This is a time of transition in New York City government. A twelve year period of relative tranquility is ending and a newly elected administration is starting in. Ideologically, from what they say, the Bill de Blasio administration wants to make a sharp turn to the left, viewing Bloomberg as a creature of the old regime. Certainly the substantial vote by which he was elected gives the new mayor a popular mandate. It is not clear, however, exactly what that mandate is for.

Is it for balancing the budget, or borrowing to close the gap? Is it for reducing expenditures or embarking on new programs like all day kindergarten? Is it for stricter law enforcement or against some police practices?

Mayor Bloomberg leaves office amid substantial public satisfaction with the job he has done over the last twelve years. The administration has been honest and its statements generally reasonable. Every now and then the mayor got into trouble for saying something, usually true, which offended people, but there has been nothing which would get him thrown off television.

Voters Term Limit Bloomberg to Three
As They Did Koch, Cuomo and Pataki
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

t has been some months since we last wrote about New York City's shifting political tides. During that time, there have been a number of reversals of fortune with regard to candidates and their prospects for reelection. There has been a greater willingness by the public this year to turn the rascals out than there was in the recent past. Reputations rise and fall. Reelection once appeared to be perfunctory in New York's gerrymandered, machine controlled one-party districts. That is no longer the case, but there is still a long way to go on the road to fair and competitive elections.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark Federal law, was adopted a generation ago to offset attempts to suppress the popular vote or create obstacles for those who tried to vote. For many years this pattern of unofficial discrimination kept minority voters from the polls, thus diluting their political influence. In districts with substantial minority populations, election outcomes did not necessarily reflect the will of the majority of the voters.

Neighbors See Red
On Asphalt Green
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, June 7th, 2013

Local issues tend to attract little public attention except by individuals and corporations who think they will be discomfited or enriched by proposed facilities that the city or state is trying to build. The antis claim that hardship will result from any change to the city map, and that any new construction will aggravate the residences and business in the surrounding area and add to overcrowding at their local schools. The old saying N.I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Back Yard) has morphed into B.A.N.A.N.A. (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody).

In some situations claims of local hardship are valid. In other cases they are not. However, it is not sound public policy to decide major matters on the basis of the opinion of small groups of people who will be benefited or harmed by a particular plan.

What responsible citizens should do while dealing with issues before the community is to measure the benefit the project will provide against the harm, both now and in the future, and try to judge what is the long term interest of the neighborhood and the city as a whole. These expectations may change quickly as new facts may be discovered about a proposed project, its sponsorship, its cost and the impact of construction on the neighborhood.

They Rat Each Other Out
For Lighter Sentences
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

For the last few weeks, New Yorkers have been exposed to the spectacle of politicians caught in various inappropriate behaviors - sexual, financial or both. Even if the misdeeds of the accused officials are a subject long familiar to the political community, the public exposure changes the game by enabling the media to say what it believed all along, but did not print for lack of proof.

Vito Lopez is the prime example of this implosion. His fall from grace is particularly striking. Some months ago he was the leader of the Democratic Party in Kings County, the most populous county in New York State. Lopez was Chairman of the Assembly Housing Committee, responsible for approving the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on public housing. His girlfriend was earning over $300,000 per year working for organizations he controlled, which would donate heavily to his political campaigns. The whole web of arrangements turned out to be a house of cards, but nonetheless until someone removed one card, it stood for over a decade.

Crime Wave in Legislature
Or Just Better Prosecutors?
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, May 10th, 2013

Is there a crime wave among elected officials in New York State?

That is a question that can reasonably be asked in view of the current spate of indictments, trials and convictions of elected public officials, primarily state legislators. The increasing number of prosecutions, however, is not just today's news. In the last seven years, 32 state level officials have been the subject of criminal proceedings. The ratio of defendants to the entire population of the legislature is comparable to street criminality in some neighborhoods.

We ask: Why? Does the field of public service have a particular attraction for white collar criminals? Or do ordinary men and women, previously presumably honorable, succumb to temptation when substantial public funds are available for them to spend or allocate without their having to carry guns or commit crimes of violence?

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Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.