Who can use a public park?
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Who can use a public park?

What defines a public park and who can use it?

One local official in Rockland County thinks he has the answer.

Other municipal and county leaders have been largely silent on his stance, one that undoubtedly will lead to controversy — and more— if left unchecked.

It doesn’t appear that Councilman Peter Bradley of Clarkstown consulted with other town officials or law enforcement before posting a declaration saying that only residents can use the park. He should know better or have made it his business to know better. Public officials have an obligation to know what they are talking about before speaking and the potential consequences. They are held to a higher standard.

This latest barrage of rhetoric that Rockland is experiencing will lead to increased divisiveness if our elected officials and community representatives don’t denounce it.

Councilman Bradley wants residents who see people in a town park whom they think don’t live locally to call him directly on his town-issued cell phone. However, he doesn’t caution people not to approach other park visitors. On Friday, September 28,, he wrote on social media that he will “personally conduct the security check” or ensure that the appropriate town employees do so.

It is unrealistic to expect that people will agree to show their proof of residency to someone they don’t know. They will insist on finding out whether that person has the authority to question them. Councilman Bradley refers to a 1974 local law limiting park usage to residents to justify his position. The law says that the recreation and parks department is responsible for Clarkstown’s facilities, but he doesn’t specify that would be the department he would call.

How does Councilman Bradley think that he or other people can determine whether someone doesn’t live in the community without it being considered profiling or discriminatory? There’s the risk that such an encounter would lead to a confrontation.

The U.S. Census estimated that in 2017, Clarkstown had more than 87,500 residents; they are white, African American, Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian. What will make any of them look like “an outsider” rather than a resident? Their language, their accent, their clothing, the food they are eating, their disability, their tattoos, the vehicle they drive, or their hair color?

If a person is wearing a sweatshirt with the name of an out-of-state college or tourist destination, does that mean they don’t live in the community? Is a resident who has family visiting from outside New York and uses their car to drive to the park going to be asked to show ID? What happens when a local teenager, who is not an adult, comes to the park with friends from other parts of the county? Will there be exceptions when sports teams from different towns play each other? Or when a parent wants to sign his or her child up for a recreational sports league that plays in another community? Will runners and cyclists going through a park be stopped?

It’s troubling that this comment is still on social media with Councilman Bradley’s request to “Please share this post far and wide.” Our law enforcement agencies are supposed to monitor social media for content that can lead to confrontations. Can it be that no other elected or law enforcement official has spoken with him yet? We believe this is a dangerous precedent that will cause altercations or lawsuits.

The Nanuet Board of Education followed Councilman Bradley’s lead. It sent an email saying that school district facilities such as the Highview Playground are for the exclusive use of Nanuet students and residents, and directed people to call a security hotline if they see someone they think is a non-resident on the playground. Are these ordinances legal? Where does this stop? When does it stop?

Nearby Mahwah recently settled a lawsuit over banning outsiders from its parks because its ordinance violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws. New Jersey wanted to reclaim funds the state had given to the parks because the local laws were contrary to the guidelines under which the money was granted. Do we in Rockland want to go through the same experience? Then we can pay even higher taxes if state or federal park grants have to be repaid and the legal fees covered.

Councilman Bradley is wrong. We need wiser leaders to speak out and stop this before we wind up repeating the costly experience and negative publicity faced by our neighbors. The idea of self-appointed residents who will decide that other people look like they do or do not belong is dangerous and risky. Asking people without proper training to take on this role in our parks presents a real safety issue that we all should want to avoid. It also would send another potentially damaging message — that Rockland County is intolerant and only wants people who look like they “fit in.”

Steve Gold of New City is the chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County

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