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Seattle parks plan: Why does City Council want to control it?

A scene in Seattle's Discovery Park Credit: Wonderlane/Flickr

The other night, activists, volunteers, and parks staff packed into City Council chambers to discuss Seattle’s proposed Metropolitan Parks District.  Beyond the ailing state of the city’s parks — officials estimate a maintenance backlog around $270 million — supporters and opponents agreed on few details.

The philosophical divide was often stark, as it has been since the city parks-funding proposal’s debut. The district’s proponents emphasize the importance of making it easier to raise revenue for critical parks maintenance and improvements. Opponents express concern that a Metropolitan Parks District, which could levy up to $375 of additional property tax per year on a $500,000 home, would lack the financial restraint and line-item specificity about spending purposes offered by the voter-approved levies under which most major Seattle parks have been approved up to now.

During more than two hours of public comment on April 7, lines of conflict were generally drawn around mechanisms for funding.

Another part of the MPD proposal has received less attention, but may prove an equally contentious issue: Who would be in charge of the new Metropolitan Parks District’s considerable taxing authority?

The plan proposed by the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray would keep this authority with the Council. This model  — where the City Council serves as Parks Board in an ex officio” capacity — seems like a natural progression. The proposed Metropolitan Parks District (despite the name, it would only involve City of Seattle parks) will operate on the basis of an inter-local agreement (ILA) between the City and the Council (as Parks Board). The ILA would essentially be a unilateral agreement, binding the City Council to itself. However, the ILA can also be used to enumerate the MPD's responsibilities and powers, and does require the Council's formal amendment (subject to mayoral veto) to modify..

This model would closely resemble the current system, under which the parks system is subject to City Council oversight.  However, statewide, this form isn't the most common for parks districts. Across Washington state’s 16 metropolitan parks districts, only four use the City Council as the parks board. And those cases would be markedly different situations. In Tukwila, the parks district operates a single public swimming pool, not a farflung collection of parks and facilities like Seattle has. The others serve relatively small cities: Normandy Park (pop. 6,500); Pullman (31,400); and Shelton (9,800).

By contrast, the residents of many of the state’s larger metropolitan parks districts — including Tacoma’s — elect their parks commissioners. Why, then, shouldn’t Seattle?

A scene in Discovery Park Wonderlane/Flickr

In a 1999 blog post, Councilmember Nick Licata lays out the basic arguments for Council control.  An ex officio board, he writes, “would avoid creating a new bureaucracy,” and “avoid having city parks divided between MPD managed properties and City managed ones.”  Rejecting claims that an independent board fosters accountability, Licata argues that it instead “fracture[s] policymaking,” potentially leaving “competing bodies…vying for the same public revenue base.” Seattle voters, he notes, do not elect an independent board for Seattle City Light, which boasts a larger budget than Parks.

When I contacted Licata last Tuesday, he reaffirmed his previous commitment to an ex officio Parks Board. He was especially skeptical of claims that an independent board would foster greater accountability. “That’s a pretty strange argument,” Licata said, “[since] what you’re basically arguing for there is separating city functions into separate accountability boards, and I don’t think you’re getting as good of a response.” 

Another plus in Licata’s estimation: continuity. He argued that the Seattle City Council is a known quantity on parks issues, and a separate board could potentially squander well-built social capital. Speaking of labor in particular, Licata explained that much of unions' support of the MPD comes from their familiarity with the Council, and fears that a separate board might require new bargaining units. “They have a relationship with the City,” Licata explained, “and they see the Council as tried and true, something that works.”

Do cities with independent parks boards, in fact, experience these problems? Both Licata and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Select Committee on Parks Funding, were unaware of any Seattle efforts to contact other MPDs to evaluate their experiences with independent boards. I reached out to Erik Hanberg, an elected member of Tacoma’s Metropolitan Park District, to get an experience outsider’s sense of an independent metropolitan parks district.

Hanberg began by emphasizing how difficult it was for him to criticize an idea that offers more money for parks, in Seattle or elsewhere. He also expressed sympathy (echoed by many political scientists) that voters may be tasked with electing too many offices. Although Hanberg expressed support for the MPD’s funding mechanism, he balked at the idea of having a City Council as an ex officio Parks Board, “believing that the long-term benefit for the parks would be much greater with a publicly elected board who advocated for parks.”

Of concerns about inter-governmental conflicts over funds, Hanberg argued that such competition "may be a feature, not a bug." Hanberg theorizes that city councils might be tempted to use parks funds for peripherally-related projects like transportation. In simple terms, “the City Council doesn’t think about parks nearly as much [as the parks board].”

Although, at 105 years old, Tacoma’s MPD is well past its growing pains stage, Hanberg is also skeptical of the claims that an independent parks board is less responsive. He said that the Parks Board “can advocate for parks and parks alone, where a city council has to weigh parks with competing financial pressures for police, fire, and transportation." Hanberg also characterized the Park Board’s relationship with labor as positive, and was unaware of any history of concerns regarding separate bargaining units. He did not observe an operational difference between the City Council and Parks Board in interacting with labor.

As for the choice of ex officio model for the MPD, “I don’t really see anything here but a [revenue] grab on behalf of the Council,” Hanberg concluded.

I also contacted Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, whom Bagshaw cited as an enthusiast for the metropolitan parks districts system. She is, characterizing it as a “system that works well in Tacoma,” especially because of their part-time council. Strickland did, however, laud the “productive” relationship between the Tacoma Council and the Parks Board. She echoed Hanberg’s sentiments that a separate Parks Board seems to encourage accountability, not dilute it.

For their parts, both Bagshaw and Licata are confident that the MPD, and the proposed inter-local agreement, provide sufficient accountability. “The objections I read are good objections,” explained Licata, “but I think they’ve been met.” Licata did say that, while he is confident that the inter-local agreement could effectively bound the MPD’s powers, the nature of the agreement is not a closed question to him. “I believe it has a number of safeguards in it,” he explained, “but I want to take a closer look and see if they are actually there.”

Bagshaw was also emphatic about keeping parks in the hands of City Council. “We have the big vision…for transportation, public safety, libraries, everything we invest in,” she said. “We have our fingers on the pulse of everything, and we’re thinking about this as a whole,” she added.

Both Bagshaw and Licata noted nothing is final. “I really support this notion of having the City Council serve as the Board,” Bagshaw said, but added that “it can always change.”

Once it's passed, the MPD structure can’t easily change, though. For opponents and proponents alike, the time for change is running out.  City Council is expected to vote by May 5 to place the Metropolitan Parks District on the ballot. Voters would have the final decision on creating a parks district in the Aug. 5 primary balloting.

Disclosure: Councilmember Sally Bagshaw is married to Crosscut Board President Bradley Bagshaw.  

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