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Seattle Metropolitan Parks District: A tense ‘yes’

Gas Works Park in Seattle, WA

Gas Works Park (2012) Credit: Evan Blaser

Seattle Prop. 1, the vote to create a new Metropolitan Parks District, turned into a Rorschach test on public trust.

On Primary Night August 5, the voters seemed to be passing the new Parks District, 52.3 percent yes and 47.6 percent against. It looks like Prop. 1 will pass — advocates aren't declaring victory yet, but you wouldn't know that from how they celebrated at Belltown's 5 Point Cafe when the numbers rolled in at 8:15 Tuesday night.

The pro-Parks crowd whooped and cheered when the numbers were announced. Their relief was palpable. A small lead was more than many had expected in what was a tight race. Thatcher Bailey, president of the Seattle Parks Foundation, couldn't conceal his delight. "Holy shit!" he yelled. Some had expected the "yes" votes to trail in the early count, and the campaign believes it will pick up momentum in the later ballot are counted due to their get-out-the-vote efforts.

The surprise lead didn't come by accident. Just before 8 p.m., Prop. 1 leader and City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw rode in on her bike, nervous and breathless, having just hand delivered a single ballot from a neighbor to the courthouse at 7:30 — "the last vote" she joked. The pro-parks campaign claimed to have made over 40,000 phone calls to voters. They were leaving nothing to chance. Responding to the first numbers, Bagshaw declared giddily, "This just proves everybody loves parks!"

Meanwhile, in the Queen Anne Hill living room of the "no" campaign's chairman, Don Harper, the mood was resigned. "We lost," Harper told a crowd of about 20 supporters. Carol Fisher, the campaign's vice chair, said, "I was surprised we did as well as we did."

In terms of park love, both sides claimed to be the most ardent. The "Yes" campaign called itself "Parks for All," and the "No" campaign upped the ante by declaring "Our Parks Forever." Of course, the only thing "forever" about parks is squabbling over them. But no one was willing to cede an edge on parks love to the other.

Still, two starkly contrasting views of government were outlined in the campaign.

Parks district advocates believed they were trying to solve a long-term and systemic funding problem that stemmed for tax limits laid down by Tim Eyman's anti-tax initiatives and the legislature. They wanted to find solid, permanent funding for parks operations and maintenance and expand and improve the system. What's not to love?

Anti-Prop. 1 advocates painted a darker picture: the district as a kind of Darth Vader intent on condemning your property, selling off parks and building unwanted stadiums. It was painted as an example of out-of-control government out to feather its own nest. The one thing everyone agreed on, other than a love of parks, was that the vote would raise taxes — that was the point.

In a city where everybody purportedly loves parks, the vote was relatively close. If we love them so much, why did nearly half of the electorate vote "No?" Why did the "Yes" campaign have to raise nearly ten times as much ($367,000 vs. $38,000) to get just over half of the vote?

Chart: Bill Lucia

Some of the closeness could be attributed to the small summer primary turnout. Some also to a general aversion to higher property taxes. The measure was also complex — creating a new public authority that overlapped with the city council with new powers to tax. It even looked complicated on the ballot, something that often raises doubt. If voters are confused, they often default to “No.”

Brad Kahn, chairman of the Seattle Parks Foundation, which worked heavily for the measure, says that supporters knew from the beginning the proposal "was never going to be a slam dunk." Said Kahn, "It was going to be a heavy lift from day one." He accused the "No" campaign of misleading claims and "black helicopter" paranoia about the plan. Even in tax-friendly Seattle, an uphill climb was expected, and the "No" campaign won over many doubters, including The Seattle Times editorial board and the League of Women voters — hardly tin-foil types. A big chunk of Parks District skepticism resided with the grassroots, neighborhood activists who are frequently suspicious of City Hall.

Still, there seemed to be something out there that made many voters hesitate to jump on the pro-parks bandwagon. One might have been a shyness about embracing complexity. Seattle voters often believe that public process begins with a public vote, and city and regional voters sometimes see issues multiple times before they render a final decision (Sound Transit, Forward Thrust, the Monorail, the Commons, to name a few). Or perhaps they balked at the fine print. Opponent Fisher claimed, "The people who voted 'no' were the people who really looked at the issue."

Another question is whether skepticism about the parks plan is an expression of the frustrations of older, middle-class voters who feel they are paying the lion's share of the costs of growth, yet getting few of the benefits. For one thing, our current economy favors young Amazonians, not the older North Enders. Seattle was once a solidly middle-class city, yet prosperity is passing many by. Taxes go up, traffic gets worse, things are more crowded — all so rich techies can live the good life in a South Lake Union high rise and ride a pricey toy trolley?

The significance of the vote was felt strongly by proponents. "I believe we've created something unbelievable," Bagshaw cheered. Kahn said he thought "it was the most progressive thing we've done for parks since the Olmsted plan" was approved — in 1903. That plan was the blueprint for the entire system.

Mayor Ed Murray showed up at the Five Point with his spouse, parks planner Michael Shiosaki, and spoke to the crowd. Murray thanked a long list of mayors who had laid the groundwork and supported the parks plan, including Charles Royer, Norm Rice, Greg Nickels, Mike McGinn and the late Paul Schell. The passage of Prop.1 solves some big problems, not just in funding parks but also in making room for other levies in the offing, from universal pre-K to transportation. He was delighted to have this piece of the puzzle in place, and for him, the Parks Rorschach test only read one way: as proof "government is part of the solution."

The voters seem to agree, at least on this issue, but not by much.

Disclosure: Crosscut board chair Bradley Bagshaw is married to City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.

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