Presto! A Seattle parks levy!

In the man-bites-dog department, we have a City Council deciding to defy Mayor Greg Nickels and put a parks levy on the fall ballot. Here's how something that "never happens" actually happened.
In the man-bites-dog department, we have a City Council deciding to defy Mayor Greg Nickels and put a parks levy on the fall ballot. Here's how something that "never happens" actually happened.

Seattle voters will get a chance to renew the popular Pro Parks levy this fall, after all. On Monday, July 21, the City Council voted 7-0 (Richard McIver and Sally Clark were absent) to send the $145 million measure to the November ballot. The unusual action was taken despite the opposition of Mayor Greg Nickels, who has other fish to fry.

Unlike the parks levy approved in 2000 and expiring this year, the renewal would not include any money for operations, maintenance, or programming. More than 25 percent of the last measure funded those items, which some criticized by saying operations should be funded from the general city fund. Lesson learned: This time, the money will flow almost exclusively to park acquisitions and park improvements. In two notable exceptions, council members earmarked $12 million for seismic upgrades to the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. Both are owned by Seattle Parks and Recreation, but critics will likely question why boosting indoor space is included in a levy for buying open space.

It's not too surprising that a popular measure like this would be sent to voters for renewal — until you consider that Mayor Nickels has been fighting against it for months. Earlier this year he argued that not every levy should automatically be renewed, and that there are other ways to fund parks besides tax increases. More recently, his opposition reflected the economic downturn, saying that the timing wasn't right and voters should be given a break. He would have waited until 2010.

But not a complete break: Nickels has pushed for a $73 million Pike Place Market levy and a Sound Transit package ($17.6 billion at last count), which is likely headed to voters as well.

Not too many weeks ago it looked as though Nickels' timing argument against a parks renewal might win the day. Enough council members seemed reluctant about the current economic environment to keep the measure off the ballot in 2008, especially as the Sound Transit measure loomed as likely. What happened? Moreover, how did the City Council for the first time in history put a levy on the ballot without a Mayor's support? The nerve!

Let's call the roll:

Tim Burgess. The new council member campaigned hard for renewal during last fall's election. He pounded his opponent, David Della, the former Parks Chair, for not having done anything during his four years to get it ready for the ballot. Burgess needed to deliver.

Nick Licata. He was always a firm supporter of renewal. Though he was not a key player behind the scenes on the topic, he was a reliable pro vote as others worked the issue.

Tom Rasmussen. As the new chair of the council's parks committee, Rasmussen, an unequivocal supporter of renewal, was in a position to push it. If he was in any way reluctant, as some council members were, it would very well not have happened, given that he controlled the relevant committee. He was especially buoyed by polling that showed two-thirds of Seattleites support renewal.

Richard Conlin. The new council president has been working hard behind the scenes to develop council majorities on many key policies. He is regarded by many of his colleagues as a surprisingly effective leader when it comes to asserting their priorities. Conlin saw the parks renewal as a chance for the council to break out on a poplar issue the Mayor was neglecting — and, in the process, give himself a good issue should he decide to challenge Nickels in 2009. With four clear "yes" votes in hand at the outset of the process, Conlin worked hand-in-hand with Rasmussen to convince others to come on board. They were a tireless tag team.

Jean Godden and Bruce Harrell were the primary targets of the very persistent Conlin and Rasmussen. Both had expressed reluctance about the timing issue, especially Harrell, but both were supportive of the concept in general. At some point within the last few weeks Godden jumped on board. Among other things, she was impressed with the citizens' committee that had come up with the specifics of the renewal plan. Her support gave the pro side a clear five-vote majority, a key milestone that probably tipped Harrell into the yes camp. (It's easier to be the sixth vote than the fifth vote.) Also, a number of environmental groups, who support Harrell wants, lobbied him hard.

Jan Drago. She was the biggest surprise "yes" vote of all. She stated clearly on several occasions that she would oppose renewal in 2008 if Sound Transit came back this year with a package, not wanting a parks levy to jeopardize the light rail plan. (Drago chairs the council's transportation committee.) Even as late as last Friday, Drago still wasn't a "yes" vote, but it appears she decided that since the renewal was definitely headed to the ballot (supporters had a veto-proof majority of six votes, after all), she might as well do what she could to help it win. Her vote, she knew, would give the measure the ring of unanimity.

Sally Clark was absent from Monday's meeting (in Italy, for readers who care), so it's not known how she would have voted. She, like Drago, had publicly opposed sending the parks plan to the ballot if Sound Transit was going as well.

Richard McIver was absent as well, but would almost assuredly have been the only no vote. Like Nickels, he had been arguing that voters needed a break.

Few believe the Mayor will actually veto something so popular with neighborhoods. It would be a symbolic act anyway, for the council has the votes to override him. Most likely Nickels will lay low on the issue and focus on the Pike Place Market measure and the Sound Transit expansion. No one thinks he will actively oppose the renewal plan.

Here's a fact to take to your next dinner party. Since Nickels was elected in 2001, Seattle voters have approved $735 million in levies (for housing, fire stations, transportation, and education). Assuming passage of the Pike Place Market measure, the total will be $808 million. If you add the Pro Parks renewal, it's $953 million. That's getting mighty close to $1 billion, which will be easily exceeded if the affordable housing levy gets renewed next year, as expected.

I won't bother to do the math on the might-have-been monorail.


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