Henry Stern, an eccentric-but-innovative Parks Commissioner for 15 years under Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani whose legacy took a hit when a lawsuit accusing him of discriminating against black employees when it came to salaries and promotions wound up being settled by the city for $21 million, died March 28 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 83.

A puckish man who was a precocious student—he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science at 15 and from Harvard Law School at 22—but never grew out of his penchant for saying whatever he thought would get a laugh, Mr. Stern had a combative relationship with the largest Parks Department union, District Council 37, for much of his career at the agency.

Beach Season Blanketed

As its Executive Director in 1966, he decided to transfer several employees for what DC 37 officials thought were arbitrary reasons shortly before Memorial Day weekend—the official start of beach season in the city. The union responded by directing the Lifeguards it represented not to show up for work, prompting a hasty call to then-Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving at his summer home. After he countermanded the transfers, the Lifeguards suddenly appeared from under boardwalks and other nearby locations so that beachgoers could swim safely.

Mr. Stern failed to rein in his inner autocrat, and that December the union brought the issue to the attention of Mayor John Lindsay, who pulled the switch that was supposed to light the Christmas tree in City Hall Park, only to have it remain dark because workers had loosened all its bulbs. A couple of months later, Mr. Stern was reassigned to an executive job outside the Parks Department; more than 30 years after that, he summarized the discipline by saying, “I couldn’t really be fired: I was a member of the Liberal Party.”

As added protection, he took and passed civil-service exams because, as he said in a 1983 interview, “I have the true civil-service attitude: do your best and be prepared for the worst.”

His activism in the Liberal Party led to his being elected to a City Councilman at Large post in 1973. His political activities and their shared sensibilities produced a lasting friendship with Mr. Koch, and in 1983, when it appeared likely those Council jobs would be declared unconstitutional (they eventually were), he accepted the second-term Mayor’s offer to become Parks Commissioner. Telling this newspaper that “every position I’ve had has been abolished,” Mr. Stern said, “That’s why I’m so pleased to be in the Parks Department. You can’t destroy 37,000 acres.”

Expanded and Beautified

One of the notable achievements during his tenures—the final seven years of Mr. Koch’s 12 as Mayor, and all eight years of Mr. Giuliani’s two terms—was that he expanded the department’s acreage even while Parks Department staff was reduced, first through layoffs by Mayor David Dinkins, and later through attrition forced by Mr. Giuliani’s budget cuts. The New York Times reported that during Mr. Stern’s second stint as Parks Commissioner, he restored 2,200 acres of forest and wetlands, collected $1.5 million in restitution for damage to trees, planted 100,000 new street trees, and planted trees and grass in 2,000 street and highway median strips.

Some of these upgrades were accomplished using public-assistance recipients in the Work Experience Program, which union critics complained was abused by having those people perform work that formerly was the province of civil servants. In 1997 a state law was passed prohibiting that practice.

Mr. Stern at that time spoke of the change under then-DC 37 Executive Director Stanley Hill from the clashes he’d had when Victor Gotbaum led the union, saying, “Our employees are now working with us. You don’t have any sense that the unions are fighting with us, trying to establish their primacy or sabotage us.”

One reason, however, was that two leaders of DC 37 Local 983, which represented a sizable number of parks workers, had been too busy lining their own pockets to stand up for their members. That changed with the election of a reformer, Mark Rosenthal, in 1998, who brought lawsuits against the department for improperly using WEP personnel rather than unionized employees.

Favored Young Whites?

Mr. Stern also incurred unions’ wrath with his use of the “Class Of” program, under which he recruited recent graduates from top colleges for low-paid positions but quickly promoted them into jobs with higher pay and greater responsibilities. A lawsuit was brought alleging that veteran black employees with more qualifications and greater experience weren’t even interviewed for those positions before the promotions were made of white members of “Class Of.”

Toward the end of the Giuliani administration, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the complaint had merit, and in 2002, the year Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Stern left office, the U.S. Justice Department issued a citation for alleged discrimination in promotions.

Mr. Stern claimed he had doubled the number of black managers at the agency, but the Justice Department stated in its complaint that no white employees in the agency reported to black supervisors, and whites had received 70 percent of the promotions even though they comprised less than half the workforce.

The Case for Big Payout

The suit was settled for $21 million in 2008 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration after U.S. District Judge Denny Chin two years earlier ruled against the city, citing arbitrary criteria used in promotions, lack of records of the interviews used to select employees, and failure to post notices of vacancies for the jobs. He cited one case in which a black employee who sought a job was passed over in favor of a white colleague who hadn’t expressed interest in the position until a supervisor called to offer it to her, and another where “a Caucasian applicant with the lowest interview scores was selected over an African-American applicant with the highest score.”

Mr. Stern insisted he had never discriminated based on race and noted that the statement issued by the city pointed out that there had been no admission of wrongdoing as part of the settlement. But Mr. Rosenthal said of the $21-million payout, “They wouldn’t have settled for this kind of money if they were not guilty.”

Ironically, 25 years earlier Mr. Stern had recalled that in the late 1940s, high schools in The Bronx scheduled a forum in which students were supposed to discuss brotherhood. He said he informed his Teacher that he planned to speak about why blacks should be allowed to live in Stuyvesant Town, whose owner, Metropolitan Life, had kept the lower-Manhattan housing complex segregated. Mr. Stern said his Teacher informed him the topic was too controversial, and when he pressed the point, the Teacher lost his temper and said, “If you were my kid, I would spank you.”

Mr. Stern is survived by his wife, Dr. Margaret Ewing, two sons, Jared and Kenan, and five grandchildren.

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