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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

How Does Government Pay
For Services People Want?
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
One recurring problem in government is the shortage of funds needed to meet reasonable demands for services by the public.

This situation occurs for a number of reasons. One, when payment is made by a third party demand for services increases substantially; the more that is provided, the greater the level of expectation for additional services. These demands, although costly are not inherently unreasonable. But the question is where to draw the line?

Truth is the First Casualty
In Redistricting, as in War
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Monday, January 30th, 2012
The political issue of the year in New York State is redistricting following the 2010 census. New lines for legislative and Congressional districts must be drawn in time for the 2012 elections. New York is on the path to being one of the slowest states to adopt new lines.

Money may be the mother's milk of politics, but district lines are the arteries through which blood flows to nourish the body. They define the playing field, and do their best to see that it tilts in their favor. Their opponents do the same, trying to tilt the field in the opposite direction. The result is likely to be a double-tilted field, advancing the interests of the leadership of both parties at the expense of independents, dissidents, freethinkers and outsiders. The insiders usually come out on top; that is how they came to be insiders in the first place.

Cuomo and Bloomberg
Should Be Friends, Whether
They Get Along or Not.
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, January 13th, 2012
While national attention focuses on the Presidential race, now in the early stage in both parties, New Yorkers should remain concerned about how the cosmic plans of aspiring leaders of the Free World will affect our burgeoning metropolis.

The New York political stage now has two performers who are used to governing, rather than to being governed. Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg are men of stature and prestige. It is inevitable that they will come into conflict with each other, on one issue if not on many. If they engage in battle, the most likely result of their failure to get along will be an impasse on a spreading range of issues, which would preclude the full adoption of either official's vision for the future.

Politics Can Help
Cities to Prosper
If Leaders Are
Honest and Wise
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Wednesday, January 4th, 2012
Fifty years ago today, I was appointed and sworn in as Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan. That elegant title did more than justice to my actual duties, which were those of a staff assistant to the Borough President of Manhattan, at the time Edward R. Dudley.

Judge Dudley had won the Democratic primary for Borough President over Assemblyman Lloyd Dickens in a race that was a sidebar to the city-wide contest for the Mayoralty which followed Mayor Wagner's break with Carmine DeSapio, leader of Tammany Hall, the regular Democratic organization. Mr. Dickens is the father of Inez Dickens, a City Councilmember from Harlem who has been mentioned as a candidate for Council Speaker in 2013.

The Liberal Party, under the leadership of Alex Rose, supported Wagner and was influential in his primary victory. The Democratic county leaders had supported State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, a regular Democrat from Kings County. Dudley ran on Wagner's ticket, which carried Manhattan easily.

Beating the Third Term Blues
As Others Measure the Carpet
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, December 29th, 2011

The imminent approach of the mid-point of Mayor Bloomberg's third (and presumably last) term makes this an appropriate time to review his tenure and to scan the prospects of his successor who will be sworn in on January 1st, 2014 - unless something unexpectedly good or bad happens before that day.

Tradition and experience have cast a cloud over mayoral third terms. Public officials inevitably accumulate enemies over their tenure. There is no necessary correlation between competence and popularity. The better the mayor, the more s/he will attempt to accomplish, and the greater the chance of failure. The more often a mayor rocks the boat, the more opportunities for the passengers and crew to jump ship.

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