BATISTE: City Park Board’s Gross Neglect Of The PGT Beauregard Statue

The City Park Improvement Association allowed New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to confiscate the nationally recognized monument of G. T. Beauregard owned by City Park.  The bronze sculpture that for 102 years graced the park entrance leading to the New Orleans Museum of Art is now in an obscure city property that resembles a junk yard.  With rooftop snipers, K9 patrols, hundreds of barricades, and hundreds of police officers, Landrieu had New Orleans Firefighters, who attempted to conceal their identities, remove the monument under the cover of darkness.

Although removed, it has now been revealed with evidence that the City Park board rolled over and let Mitch take their monument.  And now one man who has led the fight to preserve the historic monuments has uncovered new research that also shows City Park, not the City of New Orleans, as the rightful owner of the monument, meaning Landrieu stole it from them.  City Park belongs to the taxpayers of New Orleans and Louisiana.  City Park’s mission statement from its website reads: “Preserve and improve City Park spaces for recreational, educational, cultural and beautification purposes.”  The City Park improvement Association bears the responsibility to the public and the park to protect its assets.  They have failed and it appears they knowingly took that course of action.

Mitch Landrieu announced on June 24, 2015 that he wanted to remove the equestrian Beauregard statue at the entrance to City Park.  Bob Becker, the CEO of City Park emailed Landrieu’s Chief of Staff a copy of the 1997 application to place the Beauregard statue on the National Register of Historic Places.  This document, signed by then CPIA President Gary Solomon and submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior, states that the City Park Improvement Association “is the true and only legal owner of the General Beauregard Equestrian Statue located in the New Orleans City Park.”  Becker’s June 2015 email to Landrieu’s office with this document attached says: “Makes interesting reading.”

Four days later, Becker emailed Mitch’s Chief of Staff again and wrote, “I am looking for the way forward that the mayor wants to follow.”  So in less than a week, Bob Becker showed the Mayor that City Park owns the monument, and rather than guarding a valuable historic part of City Park, he asked how he can help the Mayor get rid of it.

Some of this is old news, some is new.  Dr. Richard Marksbury, a consistently vocal leader in the fight to preserve the monuments, released the National Register documents in early May and Judge Kern Reese refused to give Beauregard’s ownership a fresh day in court. But the correspondence between CPIA and the City is new.

Dr. Marksbury has not given up his fight.  Since the confiscation of Beauregard, he has been in communication with members of the City Park Improvement Association who have claimed to be in negotiations with the City.  A few months back, CPIA board member Paul Masinter told Mid City Messenger that Beauregard may end up at Greenwood Cemetery.  Even Take Em Down NOLA leader Malcolm Suber okayed moving Beauregard to the cemetery.  But the Mayor’s office says nothing on the relocation and City Park has not taken any action.  Dr. Marksbury supported the Greenwood move and said this week, “Everybody can walk away with a win. We don’t have to go to court. It can be over and done.”  In late July, Masinter said the City and CPIA “are getting close.”   More than two years after the removal talk began, it is obvious that CPIA is not “getting close” to doing anything.

The reality is that Mitch is sitting on the monuments until the runoff election is over in order to prevent the monuments from becoming a key issue in the campaign, then he will finish off his destruction of New Orleans history so the next Mayor won’t have four historic monuments on their plate.  The question for every candidate should be: what statue or street name will be next?

The evidence of City Park’s ownership exists, the City of New Orleans has yet to prove it owns the monument.  In August 2015, then Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne wrote “The P.G.T. Beauregard statue is owned by City Park.” And City Park is run by the CPIA which technically is a State of Louisiana agency that falls under the control of the Lt. Governor’s office.  In response to Dardenne’s comments, City Park spokesperson, John Hopper told WRNO, “We’re not waffling.  It is just that we really do not think there is enough information or that enough due diligence has been done to say definitely City Park owns it, the city owns it, the state owns it. We just do not know for sure.” The issue was not that the City or CPIA was unsure, the issue was that the answer is not something City Park and Mitch Landrieu want to admit: Beauregard belongs to City Park.

Dr. Marksbury as well as The Hayride reviewed the City Park board’s minutes from June 2015 through June 2017, the latest uploaded on their website today after a request was made.  In nearly two years of recorded meeting notes, one single mention was made about the Beauregard monument, during the May 23, 2017 meeting, after it was removed.  The removal controversy has been a leading topic since Mitch announced it, yet only one mention by the City Park board.  Dr. Marksbury pointed out that CPIA’s minutes “generally are extremely detailed and thorough” except in the case of removing Beauregard.  Yet CEO Bob Becker emailed the Mayor twice about it, the Lt. Governor who oversees the CPIA addressed it, Dr. Marksbury went to court for a Temporary Restraining Order, and the City Park spokesperson spoke about it on the radio.  During the May 2017 meeting the Board went “into Executive session to discuss issues regarding the Beauregard Monument. No action was taken while in Executive session.”  So this controlling group of a public asset hid its lone communication about a city landmark from the public.

From the archives comes a letter from a City of New Orleans engineer to the Beauregard Monument Association in 1908, the group that spent 22 years raising donations to build the equestrian statue that Landrieu stole.  The engineer wrote about building the bridge at Esplanade Ave. across Bayou St. John, and, because the monument was not built yet, wrote “the matter of the mound will then rest entirely with the City Park Commissioners.”  So the City engineer deferred the Beauregard monument mound to the City Park board.

Dr. Marksbury’s research also turned up a letter from the CPIA to the Beauregard Monument Association from 1905.  Joseph Bernard wrote that the CPIA “unanimously resolved to tender you the site necessary for the monument to General Beauregard in the City Park.”  Here’s the twist, Dr. Marksbury noted that the Beauregard Monument Association is active and if the City Park board and Mitch Landrieu don’t come to an agreement to relocate Beauregard to Greenwood, the group has standing to take legal action.

The preservation fight has pushed from all sides–the public and the governmental controlling authority–except the City Park board.  In early May of 2017, before the monument was removed, sitting Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser wrote Steven Pettus, the President of CPIA, “to request that you exercise your fiduciary responsibility to preserve assets belonging to the CPIA.”  Fiduciary duty means the managing body, CPIA, has a legal responsibility to act in the interest of the property it controls, in this case City Park, and to the stakeholders it represents, which is to the people of New Orleans and Louisiana.

A few days after Nungesser’s letter, New Orleans City Attorney Rebecca Dietz sent Pettus a response.  Dietz writes that Louisiana law charges CPIA “with the preservation, oversight and management” of City Park.  Dietz includes a sentence that actually sounded as if she meant it to come from CPIA.  The complete sentence reads: “NOCPIA recognizes that the City will be moving forward with the removal and storage of the Monument.”  Odd.  In short, Dietz’s email said that City Park may own Beauregard because it controls City Park, but we are moving ahead with taking your statue.  Oh, and we can try to figure this out over the next 30 days when the City and CPIA “engage in good-faith negotiations to attempt to resolve their competing claims.”  That 30 days is long past.

Another piece of the puzzle that is assumed but not widely known is the relationship between Landrieu and the City Park Board leaders. City Park CEO Bob Becker and CPIA Board President Steven Pettus met with Mitch Landrieu on May 10th, in between Nungesser’s letter and Dietz’s letter.  Nothing has ever been disclosed about this meeting.  City Park has remained silent and tried with every effort to avoid the Beauregard ownership issue.

CPIA is the governing authority over New Orleans’ City Park, a park that equates to one and a half times the size of New York City’s Central Park.  The CPIA consists of 35 people, appointed and elected.  Two New Orleans City Council Members sit on the board, Susan Guidry and Jason Williams.  Both voted for the removal of the Beauregard Monument on December 17, 2015.  This should have been an obvious conflict of interest, as the Council votes of Guidry and Williams directly conflict with their role on the CPIA board to protect the assets of City Park.

According to the approved minuted from June 2015 through June 2017, the City Park Improvement Association only discussed the Beauregard Monument once, in executive session, shrouded from the public, after the monument was removed.  Only one mention about City Park and the Beauregard monument is on the record with a Lt. Governor challenging the Mayor for ownership in 2015, with public record requests, with media swarming, with two Council Members on the board, with attempts at legal actions to prevent the removal, and with citizens emailing and handwriting requests to save the monument to a Louisiana civil rights leader.  The man who finished second in his West Point class and later became the Superintendent of West Point.  The Mexican War Veteran who later sided with his home state of Louisiana, leading troops against an invading northern army.  The man who founded the Louisiana Unification Movement to improve race relations in 1873.  The creole Frenchman, Pierre Gustav Toutant-Beauregard, born in St. Bernard and lived much of his life in New Orleans, including on Esplanade Avenue, the old creole main street.

City Park did not think the equestrian statue, built by renowned sculptor Alexander Doyle, of a Louisiana historical figure was worth one notation without details.  Almost certainly they did talk more about Beauregard, but they kept it off the record.  Just like Mitch Landrieu, the City Park board is rewriting history.  As it turns out, the City Park Improvement Association board members are not “Friends of City Park,” they are guilty of gross neglect.

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