Kevin Gaughan discusses his Buffalo Olmsted parks proposal with WGRZ-TV.
Kevin Gaughan discusses his Buffalo Olmsted parks proposal with WGRZ-TV.

Letter to the Editor: Kevin Gaughan Responds to Bruce Jackson

by / Jul. 27, 2016 8am EST

For almost thirty years, I’ve attempted to meet my civic duties as a Buffalo resident and Western New York citizen, an effort that has brought me the privilege of a public life. During that period, I’ve learned that no useful purpose is served by responding to those who engage in personal attacks, or who approach public matters in less than serious manner. Regrettably, for Bruce Jackson’s article concerning my proposal to improve our city’s Frederick Law Olmsted parks (“Kevin Gaughan’s Goofy Golf Idea”), I must make an exception. 

I happened to read Jackson’s piece the same evening I listened to Donald Trump’s speech before the Republican National Convention. The bully’s ploy of denigrating those with whom you disagree, of marginalizing people by claiming their “low” status, and of showing callow disregard for the truth, informed both Trump’s speech and Jackson’s article. It brought to mind Winston Churchill’s response to a lengthy, vitriolic monologue from an opponent: “everything you said that is relevant is not true, and everything you said that is true is not relevant.”

With respect to me and my civic work, Jackson makes false statements, fabricates events, and invents episodes that never occurred. As for the proposal I’ve respectfully submitted to the City of Buffalo and our Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Jackson misrepresents both my plan and the underlying ideas it seeks to serve. He disparages my proposal, those individuals and institutions which support it, and anyone who dares enter the marketplace of ideas whom he deigns unworthy. Most damaging, Jackson’s article implicitly calls for a return to the time of local policy decisions being made behind closed doors by unaccountable people—a practice that led to our waterfront laying endlessly fallow, destruction of historic landmarks, construction of harmful structures and, most important, four decades of economic decline for our city, borne of elitist resistance to change.

Many of Jackson’s failings in his article could have been avoided had he met a basic standard of journalism and called me to discuss my proposal, or any aspect of my private or public life—a courtesy he extended to Olmsted Conservancy personnel in the course of preparing his article. As a result, he impels me to refute his false assertions by recounting my public work, and setting the record straight on certain aspects of my private life.

My political affiliation and electoral record 

Jackson writes that I have run for public office “sometimes as a Democrat, sometimes as a Republican. Whatever line was open.” That is a lie. I’ve never run for office as a Republican nor permitted my name to appear on a Republican ballot line. I am a proud, lifelong, progressive Democrat. The only parties to endorse my candidacies were the Democratic and Working Family parties. Any cursory review of Erie County Board of Elections records would have confirmed this fact.

As for my lack of electoral success in the five (not seven, as Jackson writes) instances in which my name appeared on a primary or general election ballot over the course of twenty-six years, I concede I’m not a good politician. While I’ve lost my share of elections, I’ve never compromised my principles nor lost my soul. While Jackson, like Donald Trump, divides the world into “winners” and “losers,” I chose my campaigns not on the basis of likelihood of success, but on the importance of the issues involved. And I take a measure of pride in the fact that many of the progressive policies I advanced are now in practice in local governance.

But there’s a more menacing aspect of Jackson’s line of argument. In an essay that purports to examine my Olmsted parks proposal, he devotes substantial portions to me, my personal life, and matters unrelated to our Olmsted parks — the definition of an ad hominem attack: rejection of an idea based on irrelevant or inaccurate claims about its proponent’s circumstances, character or history. For Jackson, a man of intellect and academic standing, to employ such discredited reasoning is startling and, more important, damaging to our community. Like Trump, Jackson asserts that people like me—“just a man with ideas,” as he writes—should not be accorded entry into the public square. It’s an exclusionary view inconsistent with the world of academic freedom of which Jackson is a part. 

I don’t know what Jackson instructs his students at UB, but I know what I advise mine at Daemen College: to value and affirm all people; to engage in public discussions with respect, dignity and seriousness of purpose; and to consider, weigh and test ideas solely on their merits. 

Jackson’s musings on whether I’m a leader

Whether my record of civic work for our city and region earns me the designation of leader is a judgment for others, not me. It’s my hope, though, that those who make that determination evince less bitterness and more regard for facts than Jackson.

Jackson writes, “Gaughan has never mounted a public project with an employee or a building or a piece of land.” That is false. As counsel to the Erie County legislature in the mid-1990’s, I worked closely with then Chief Judge Vincent Doyle, legislator Joan Bozer, and Commissioner John Loffredo on the Erie County Courts Improvement Project. It included construction of our Family Court Building and renovation of Old County Hall, its 25 Delaware Annex, and two other county structures. In this connection, I participated in the selection of architects, and visited courthouses in Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and throughout New York. I helped devise a “courts program” to suit and serve the more than 200 employees who at that time worked in our local courts. In so doing, I learned a great deal about project financing, and future program budgeting. In addition, as an attorney in practice for more than thirty years, I’ve represented clients in both public and private commercial real estate developments.

As to the matter of leadership, here’s a short list of my initiatives:

  • The 1990’s Chautauqua conferences on regional governance, which caused Erie County’s 45 local governments to collaborate for the first time on purchases, service delivery, and elected official duty-sharing, resulting over the years in the savings of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, and making “regionalism” a household word;
  • Erie Canal Conference, which in 2000 helped stop Albany’s misguided plan to bury the Commercial Slip and surrounding streetscape on Buffalo’s waterfront, insuring that our city’s unique history would be the centerpiece of the current Canalside development; 
  • “Buffalo Conversation” series, which sought to breathe new life into the American tradition of public forums by compelling public servants to hear and heed the views of private citizens, and which were credited with stopping politicians’ plan to house the City of Buffalo Financial Control Board in the offices of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership 
  • Let People Decide, a citizens group comprised of more than 3,000 volunteers across upstate New York, which has caused 14 public referenda, resulting in voters in 3 counties, 6 towns, and 1 village adopting downsizing measures, saving $4.8 million per year.

For these efforts and others, I was named an “Outstanding Citizen of the Year” by The Buffalo News in 1998, “Citizen of the Year” by the New York State League of Women Voters in 2004, voted “Best Activist” by readers of Artvoice for five consecutive years, received the Red Jacket Medal from the Buffalo History Museum for civic leadership, and was named among “The 25 Most Influential People in WNY” in a 2013 reader survey conducted by The Buffalo News.

Beyond my personal stake here, Jackson’s perilous argument that only “leaders” should be heeded—and the chilling effect that view carries—must be addressed. The tone and content of Jackson’s article serves as warning that any mere citizen who opens her mouth or offers his view does so at the risk of being publicly ridiculed by Jackson in snarly tone and with flagrant falsehoods. Even more troubling, Jackson contends that no elected or appointed official of a public agency, authority, commission or, in this instance, Conservancy, should pay any mind to such lowly creatures.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “the highest office in America is that of citizen.” If we hewed to Jackson’s elitist view that only pols and their appointees should be heard, our community would have missed the benefit of Mark Goldman’s waterfront ideas, Erin 

Heaney’s and Rebecca Newberry’s environmental justice, Aaron Bartley’s housing initiatives, Tim Tielman’s preservation triumphs, and, perhaps most germane, Karen Stanley Fleming and Restore Our Community Coalition’s efforts to recreate Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway. If this essay has any worthwhile message, it is to reject Jackson’s implicit call to return to the day when citizens were forced to wait for a self-selected group of affluent, white, business executives to emerge from the Buffalo Club and tell citizens how to build a bridge, drive a highway through a neighborhood, or land a big suburban box on our urban waterfront. 

Hitting someone with a heavy object vs. sending them a letter

Jackson writes that “Gaughan set his P[ublic] R[elations] in motion before he delivered [his plan] to the agencies that would have to deal with it,” analogizing this alleged behavior on my part to “hitting someone in the back of the head with a heavy object.” The truth is, I sent my letter to the Conservancy and Mayor Brown before I sent it to any journalist, and I have email records to prove it. Moreover, I made both the Conservancy and the mayor aware of an early version of my plan in meetings with them in 2014. 

I look forward to beginning my collaboration with the Conservancy when I formally present my plan on August 3rd. Having had constructive discussions with their talented staff, I’m confident that once Conservancy trustees have a chance to grasp the potential of the plan, together and with citizens’ input, we will produce a final plan that will advance our city’s interests.

Jackson’s inappropriate “drooler” metaphor 

Aside from his treatment of me, I was also offended by Jackson’s insensitive use of a phrase to describe the editorial support for my plan from The Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising. By characterizing other journalists as “droolers,” a pejorative used at times to denigrate people with physical, emotional or developmental challenges, Jackson crossed a boundary that no educated person should even approach.

My Olmsted parks proposal

Here’s a bullet-point summary of my proposal, which serves the Conservancy’s mission in our parks, at no expense to taxpayers:

  • Enhance Olmsted’s elegant Delaware Park with the beauty of a Nicklaus design;
  • Restore Olmsted’s original Arboretum in South Park by relocating the present golf course to an adjacent parcel;
  • Use less space for the Delaware course, restoring more of Olmsted’s Meadow;
  • Provide employment skills to inner-city youth;
  • Bring to city residents a public golf course equal to any area private course;
  • Add to the existing investment and energy that is resuscitating the City of Buffalo. 

For the past two years, in consultation with preservation, education, and development experts and Olmsted scholars, I worked to devise a preliminary plan that might persuade legendary champion Jack Nicklaus, his company, and other national partners to do something Nicklaus has never done before: design public golf courses in an inner city.

In his piece, Jackson demonstrates lack of knowledge of basic facts regarding our Olmsted gifts. He asserts that Olmsted’s Arboretum was never built. According to leading Olmsted scholars, Francis Kowsky and Witold Rybczynski, by the early twentieth century, the Arboretum was fully realized. Equally troubling is Jackson’s dismissive view of today’s Delaware golf course, which has evolved into a recreation center for those—including many people of color—who cannot afford membership in a private golf club. Jackson’s call to simply remove the Delaware course disregards its present day role, and belies Olmsted’s later recognition of the need for recreational facilities in his parks.

Along with many Buffalo residents, I’ve always looked at the Delaware course, wondered how it got there, and pondered its removal. In 2014 I met with two Conservancy trustees and learned that their entity depends on revenue derived from operation of the course. More important, I spent that summer speaking with folks who play the course, predominantly people of color. I was astonished to learn of their deep affection for it. Indeed, when I mentioned my then notion of removing it to a nearby location, they strenuously objected. With vivid recollection, elderly players described their memories of when the course was properly maintained, in the era of revenue sharing, before suburban growth robbed urban centers of public funds, and when local government possessed ample revenue to appropriately care for public amenities.

That’s when I realized: inner city residents, with no access to private facilities, deserve a public course equal to any other; and the Delaware course, once arguably a misplaced use of a pastoral setting, had through the years transformed into a space that serves Olmsted’s democratic notion of nature for all, regardless of social or economic standing.

As for project financing, with the assistance of professional colleagues, I devoted more than a year locating private individuals and institutions with the resources to lend a hand to restore Buffalo’s original Olmsted legacy. My track record of successfully encouraging national foundations to support my civic work is a matter of public record; as is the track record of Jack Nicklaus, who has graciously agreed to partner with me to meet the project budget.

A final regretful notion advanced by Jackson in his article: that obtaining private funds to make my plan a reality will “take away” monies for other public responsibilities. That fear-based sophistry was the hallmark of turgid politicians all through our painful four decade decline, as they concealed their inability to do their job with threats that doing one project would force foregoing another. Growing communities, driven by clusters of talented individuals, produce ideas and products that attract capital far beyond regional or even national boundaries. And that capital is accessed by original, innovative thinking.

Make no mistake: my parks proposal is a work in progress. It’s designed to create an inclusive, community- wide discussion on how we best strengthen our Olmsted system, build on the energy that’s restoring Buffalo to its rightful place and, most important, insure that all citizens, in particular inner-city residents of color, partake in our resurgence and feel renewed life in our city’s new birth.

Kevin Gaughan, a Buffalo attorney, formally presents his plan to the Olmsted Conservancy on August 3, after which he plans a series of open forums for citizens to discuss his proposal.