A new era at Seattle Parks? A culture change may be needed

Parks advocates have a rocky meeting with the interim superintendent.
Crosscut archive image.
Parks advocates have a rocky meeting with the interim superintendent.

Editors note: To celebrate Crosscut's 10th anniversary as a local news organization, so we are featuring the stories from April 1, 2007 on our homepage.

A meeting Friday, March 30, between the Seattle Parks Department's acting director and Parks and Open Space Advocates covered a lot of territory but left unresolved the question of public process with the embattled agency.

Parks activists in attendance said they are hopeful Betty Jean "B.J." Brooks, named as interim superintendent after Ken Bounds retired earlier this year, will follow through on a pledge to meet further with POSA. "We had eight topics and covered them all, but that gave only about five minutes per topic," noted John Barber, POSA leader.

A municipal parks department might seem an unlikely lightning rod for controversy. But under Bounds – who was pushed by Mayor Greg Nickels, some observers say – the department managed to incite ill will among numerous neighborhood and open-space constituencies in recent years. Capping citizen disenchantment was a November "no confidence" vote in Bounds (and, indirectly, the mayor) in the form of a city charter amendment granting the City Council oversight of the parks superintendent appointment. The measure passed by a 4-to-1 margin.

Brooks, at least initially considered by some City Hall watchers to have the inside track to succeed Bounds, met with POSA in a session described as a feeling-out as well as a possible mending of fences. But reviews were mixed. Brooks butted heads with one attendee, longtime parks activist Mike Ruby, on the issue of the parks board's role. And she rejected out of hand Barber's suggestion that the city consider delaying funding for the Woodland Park Zoo's mammoth parking garage project until financial and ecological impacts could be studied further.

"The most positive thing to come out of the meeting was that she said she'd like to meet again," Barber said. The department did not respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment on Friday.

Crosscut archive image.
Interim Seattle parks chief B.J. Brooks

Other attendees said Brooks seemed generally defensive. Rather than taking an opportunity to declare a more open and receptive public process, Brooks "punted" on philosophical points. Ruby asked Brooks how a recent shakeup of the parks board, in which the City Council changed the board's composition to include non-mayoral appointees, would affect the board's interaction with the department. Under Bounds, the board gained the reputation as a rubber stamp. After Brooks gave a "long-winded" answer "totally missing the point," Ruby said, she grew flustered when he pressed for clarification. "She said, 'I didn't know this was going to be on the agenda.'"

Ruby said he sees a need for citizens to be "more sophisticated as a community in tuning our approach" to multiple pressures on parks officials to please different factions. But he acknowledged that officials' tactics of making decisions behind closed doors and ignoring public concerns has ruptured trust in the department.

Besides the zoo garage and parks commission issues, the meeting covered landscaping Lake Washington Boulevard South, the parks department's role in mega-projects such as the planned new Highway 520 interchange at Montlake, a proposed land transfer at Wallingford Park, and environmentally friendly maintenance practices.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Paul Andrews

Paul is a career journalist and a self-described bike nut.