City covertly removes controversial park bench
PRESCOTT - Prescott College student Kristin Anthony knew things were not going well in her negotiations with the City of Prescott over the bench she created in Granite Creek Park.
Still, she said she never expected the scene she found when she arrived at the downtown-area park on Tuesday morning.
"I was the first one here, and I saw that the bench was gone," Anthony said, standing near the bare area where the bench once stood. "I thought I was dreaming."
The community's park bench saga ended abruptly sometime Monday night/Tuesday morning, when City of Prescott crews removed the bench that had been the source of controversy in the community for the better part of the past month.
A city press release Tuesday morning stated: "With the city having been notified of ... the withdrawal of the modified design submitted on Oct. 21, substantial variation between the original design sketch and what was built, and in the absence of any credible evidence that a structure meeting all city requirements will be achieved, the bench has been removed this date."
City officials are saying little about the decision-making process that led up to the bench removal, or specifically when the demolition occurred.
City Manager Craig McConnell said late Tuesday that Parks and Recreation employees removed the bench early Tuesday morning, before the park opened. Eyewitnesses say the bench was gone before 6:30 a.m.
"We really don't have any statement other than what was in the press release," McConnell said after Tuesday's Prescott City Council meeting.
Noting that the park bench "was discussed at length at several meetings," McConnell said, "It is clear that the Parks and Recreation department operates the parks system, and (Parks and Recreation) removed the bench."
Anthony acknowledges that things got a little muddled after a Friday meeting between her and former Parks and Recreation Director Debbie Horton.
After the meeting, in comments to the media, Anthony had said the two sides had taken a step toward a resolution.
But on Tuesday morning, Anthony said, "That meeting didn't go as smoothly as I made it sound. I was really bullied into that proposal."
Anthony now says she was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure, and she ended up endorsing a plan - which she said did not come from her - to remove all of the existing symbols and designs from the bench, and replace them with a more abstract design.
"I felt so wrong about it," Anthony said Tuesday morning. "It didn't feel right, but I didn't know what to do."
That, coupled with the fact that she needed to go to Massachusetts to visit her ill father, led Anthony to meet with a group of bench supporters over the weekend.
On Monday, that group met with acting Parks and Recreation Director Joe Baynes and delivered a statement that read, "The responsibility of the mosaic bench project has, of necessity, been transferred to a citizens action committee, which will henceforth be responsible for all activities related to bench."
The statement added: "All previous proposals submitted on Miss Anthony's behalf are to be considered null and void."
Members of the committee say Baynes refused to take the statement. Baynes was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
While Prescott officials were saying little on Tuesday, Ryan Gates, the landscape consultant who helped Anthony with the bench plans, maintains that he and city employees did all they could to help make the bench project successful.
"There were a lot of things she didn't listen to me on," Gates said Tuesday of Anthony's bench construction. "It really was about functionality and safety. I told her she needed to set the tiles level, but she didn't listen."
Gates, who said he got involved when he heard Anthony needed advice on the bench construction, suggests that the arts community got too involved in the project, and ultimately made the bench non-functional. "It turned into an art project rather than a functional bench," he said.
Although he said Anthony "worked hard" on the project, Gates said he told her that she needed to "fence it or fix it."
Even so, local artist R. Wall, one of the bench supporters, said the bench removal is another example of the city trying to "remove opinions and views that don't coincide with the City Council."
Wall compared it to a 2010 "cease and desist" action filed against him over his lack of a contractor's license to do mural art, after controversy arose over his "Mural Mice" group's artwork at Miller Valley Elementary School.
On Tuesday morning, members of the bench committee called the Prescott Police Department to report a theft of the bench, and three police cars arrived at the scene.
Jean Lutz, who served as Anthony's mentor on the project and fired the tile symbols for the bench, said the police officers refused to take a report on the matter.
"They said it isn't a criminal offense," Lutz said, adding that the city reportedly took the dismantled bench to a storage lot, although the bench supporters had yet to learn where the materials were.
Bench supporters say they are planning another get-together at the bench site from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.