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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

Winners Are Sinners
In Too Many Cases
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
The recent flurry of criminal trials and convictions of public officials for a variety of offenses causes one to think of why it is that people who are elected to represent their communities in city, state and federal government appear so often before the bar of justice.

While it is true that only a relatively small portion of elected officials are criminals, still the frequency of arrests and indictments of members of the political class causes people to doubt the integrity and validity of the legislative process, and to suspect many office-holders who have not in fact committed crimes or used their offices to enrich themselves personally. This is part of a larger distrust of government by individuals who see the state as a growing and intrusive presence, rather than as a guarantor of the liberty and security of the people.

Seabrook, Boyland
Escape Conviction
On Fraud Charges
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Reading the newspapers in recent weeks has become an exercise in exploring one scandal after another. In our field, watching the performance of public agencies and elected officials, we have been following the case of City Councilman Larry Seabrook, a city or state legislator for 27 years, and William Boyland, a Brooklyn Assemblyman and member of a political dynasty.

Seabrook is also an entrepreneur in providing a variety of social services to the public, for which he and the organizations he controls are handsomely rewarded by the government. For example, he collects rent for office space, said to be exorbitant in a 2010 Federal indictment, from nonprofits for which he helps to secure public funding. At the same time, some of those same taxpayer-funded nonprofits employ senior people who happen to be relatives of the Councilman.

Cuomo The Conqueror;
Where Will He Take Us?
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, December 8th, 2011

The agreement reached by Governor Cuomo and the legislative leaders of both houses on taxation is an achievement of sorts, in that it shows that somewhere, in some circumstances, and in some fashion, state government is capable of making decisions.

This puts Albany far ahead of Washington, where partisan gridlock has so far prevented action on numerous issues, particularly the Federal government’s lack of financial responsibility, which has led to mounting deficits. The United States would be bankrupt today if it did not have the authority to print money.

Simcha Felder
Seeks Senate Seat;
Either Party Will Do
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Monday, November 28th, 2011

For the past year, we have been watching closely the redistricting process in New York State. As you know, the United States Constitution requires the states to redraw legislative and congressional districts every ten years, on the basis of the decennial census.

The Constitution does not, however, specify how the states should do this, except to require that the populations of the various districts should be approximately equal. Recent court decisions require the protection of racial minorities. Beyond that, almost anything goes.

The historic practice of tailoring districts for partisan advantage is called gerrymandering, after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), whose surname was incidentally pronounced with a hard ‘g’. It describes a scheme involving convoluted district boundaries, structured to concentrate voters of one political party in a district where they could prevail, and to divide districts in which the opposition party might have a majority.

Koch Stresses National Issues
Which He Sees As Neglected
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011
Holidays encourage people to think retrospectively about their circumstances. So it is that Thanksgiving is an opportunity for us to speak, not only in gratitude for things that have occurred, but reflectively about things that have not happened and are, in fact, unlikely to take place.

Mayor Koch has written a Thanksgiving column which in his usual direct and uninhibited manner offers a realistic analysis of a national crisis which is not being addressed with the urgency required. We think he makes some important points and we are pleased to bring them to your attention here.

We are interested in your views of the concerns he expresses. We welcome you to respond to let us know what you think. Meanwhile, we wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving and look forward to resuming our dialogue next week.
About Author: 
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.