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

JCOPE Off To A Slow Start;
Can The Legislature Cure Itself?
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2012


The issue of ethics reform in Albany has bounced around for several years. Everyone is supposed to favor it, but somehow it never happens.

The controversy caught fire in 2006 when the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with New York University School of Law, was said to have concluded that New York State had the most dysfunctional legislature in the country. It has been disputed whether that phrase actually appears in the report. That to us is akin to the historical question: Did Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, actually say "Let them eat cake" when she was told that the peasants in France had no bread?

In fact, there is no evidence that she used those words, and the phrase must be considered an urban legend. But it resonated as a statement of royal disdain for the plight of poor people, and it may have contributed to the climate which led to the guillotining of Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI.

Why Many Politicians
Disappoint The Public
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

One of the perennial questions citizens ask about government is: why is it so corrupt? People who read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television encounter a steady flow of stories recounting misconduct by public officials or reporting the details of their arrests, trials and, in many cases, convictions. The crimes of Shirley Huntley, Carl Kruger, Vito Lopez, Naomi Rivera and Larry Seabrook have been reported in great detail.

The crimes of politicians can easily be divided in two classes: job related and non-job related. Soliciting or accepting a bribe in exchange for a vote or a contract is job related, while sexual misconduct, such as former Governor Spitzer’s acts, is considered non-job related.

The two categories overlap when the misconduct involves public employees, particularly if they are forced into unwanted personal relationships with their colleagues or superiors.

Silver Tries To Protect His Members
But They Keep Getting Into Trouble
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, August 31st, 2012

In our observation of the ethical practices of the New York State Legislature, we notice that challenges seem to arise in bunches. The situation will be relatively quiescent for a while, then something will happen: an accusation, the release of reports, the discovery of data previously concealed or later redacted, a confrontation between powerful figures - an unexpected event that will expose cracks and seams in the existing political structure and may set off a string of seemingly unrelated, but inherently similar, events on other levels of government.

Part of the problem is the enormous imbalance of talent in each house. Speaker Silver is smarter and more practical than the heavy majority that he formally leads. He has an ongoing ethical problem stemming from his private law practice Weitz and Luxenberg, but if that issue is settled, the speaker will be no more vulnerable than most of the colleagues he so diligently protects. To put it simply: Speaker Silver is an insurance policy for his members. He seeks to shield their misdeeds from public scrutiny when he is able to do so. He tries to soften their penalties if they can not be avoided. He supports legislators when they get in trouble, which is too often, and they support him on the public issues which are his priorities.

Bloomberg Well Regarded
With Eighteen Months To Go
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, July 6th, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg has now completed seven-eighths of the twelve years he will presumably serve as mayor. In 541 days New York City's next mayor, the 109th, will be inaugurated. During the next 18 months there will likely be a trickle of departures as commissioners and senior managers seek employment which will last beyond December 31, 2013. It is a weakness in our political system that when there is a change of mayors practically all commissioners and senior officials currently serving are expected to leave regardless of how well they have performed their jobs. Imagine a corporation which, every four years, routinely discharged its principal officers. This practice did not start with Mayor Bloomberg. It was the rule in the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations as well.

One effect of the revolving door system is that competent managers tend to leave government before their mayor's term ends because they need time to find jobs so they can feed their families and educate their children. No one wants to be the last man or woman out the door. Nor is it comfortable to watch on'’s colleagues being replaced by people selected to pay political debts and without regard to merit and fitness.

McCarren Pool Open
For A New Generation
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, June 28th, 2012


Today, on a glorious summer morning, the city opened the new McCarren Pool and Play Center, a multi-purpose recreational area whose centerpiece is McCarren Pool, one of the eleven Robert Moses built in 1936 as commissioner of the city Parks Department with federal funds provided as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to fight the Great Depression.

Mayor Bloomberg presided at the ceremony, held on the pool deck, which concluded with hundreds of neighborhood youth jumping into the water. They could not dive, because the water is four feet deep, but the cooling effect of the water on a hot summer day provided equal pleasure, as well as safety, which is Rule One of the Rules of the Pools.

Today's opening completed a project which was the Parks equivalent of the Second Avenue Subway Line. The pool closed in 1984 because of mechanical failures which became impractical to repair. For twenty-eight years the pool remained drained although in 2005 cultural programs made use of the empty pool.

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