City ordered to give more details about parks initiative

After an appeal by activists, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission decides the city should add information about the proposed metropolitan parks district to the voters' guide.
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A scene in Seattle's Discovery Park

After an appeal by activists, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission decides the city should add information about the proposed metropolitan parks district to the voters' guide.

Following a ruling by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, voters will receive some extra information to help them understand an upcoming ballot measure about city parks. The proposal going before voters would create a new taxing district to provide additional funding for parks.

Two neighborhood activist groups and a lawyer had filed an appeal with the commission over language the city included in the voters' guide statement describing Proposition 1, which would create the Seattle Park District. The initiative will appear on the August 5 primary ballot. At a hearing on Tuesday, the commission dismissed some of the challengers' appeals but ruled that the voters' guide statement must include more information about the district's ability to levy property taxes outside the limits that state law imposes on the city. The commission's revisions also include new language about what it would take to dissolve the district.

Toby Thaler, the lawyer involved in the appeal, said the original language describing the measure for the voters' guide was inadequate. He said the wording gave voters no idea of the permanence of the proposed district and its property-taxing authority.

The City Attorney's Office argued that Thaler and his allies were not acknowledging the effect of an "inter-local agreement" between the city and the parks district, which Mayor Ed Murray has already signed. The agreement would govern the operation of the parks district and limit its activities, according to a brief the City Attorney's Office filed with the commission. The brief says that based on the agreement there are no plans for the district to exercise the most sweeping powers it is afforded under state law — for example, raising revenue to build airports.

In the brief, the City Attorney's Office said it "believes that for the voters to understand 'the effect of the measure,' they should understand what would actually happen if the creation of the Seattle Park District is approved." 

Backers of the initiative say that the district is needed to help create a stable source of funding for parks and to pay for a large maintenance backlog that the city estimates is $267 million. A six-year, voter-approved property tax levy that provided roughly $24 million in annual parks funding is set to expire this year. The district measure, as proposed, would raise about $48 million each year. Seattle would continue to allocate at least $89 million per year for parks in general fund revenues, under the proposed district plan.

The Seattle Community Council Federation and Seattle Displacement Coalition joined Thaler in filing the appeal. The displacement coalition also filed a lawsuit over the initiative's title in King County Superior Court. A judge ruled last week that wording should be added to the title to describe the overall amount the district could levy in property taxes.

The parks district would be an independent taxing authority. It would not be subject to the state-imposed cap on the city's property tax levies, which is set at $3.60 per $1,000 of assessed value. The district could levy up to 75 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. Language that will be added to the voters' guide after yesterday's ruling will note that this rate of taxation is equal to $330 annually on a $440,000 home.

The City Council, which would serve as the district's governing board, has said that it will set the tax rate at 33 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed value. The district's authority to impose the tax would begin in 2016.

Mayor Murray proposed the park district legislation back in March. The City Council voted in April to put it on the upcoming ballot.

Language that Thaler praised as a particularly valuable addition to the voters' guide statement reads: "The District may only be dissolved or its actions reversed by its governing body or a change in state law, but not by local initiative." In other words, only the City Council members, acting as district commissioners, would be able to abolish the district locally, or undo its decisions. 

City Attorney Pete Holmes disagreed with this revision, according to Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for his office. 

A sentence included in an earlier version of the voters' guide statement said that the governing body "may choose to dissolve" the district at the city's request, or if faced with a petition from 10 percent of voters asking them to do so. This original language, Mills said in an email, "correctly advised voters of their right to petition to dissolve the District, whereas the revised sentence could be read to suggest — inaccurately — that voters have no say in the continued existence of the District."

The brief filed by the City Attorney's Office also notes that City Council members are "directly answerable to Seattle's voters."

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, pointed to a 2011 initiative related to the Highway 99 tunnel project as an example of another ballot measure where the wording in the voters' guide was appealed. The commission sided mostly with the city in that ruling.

"It is not uncommon for the commission to take a look at these explanatory statements," Barnett said.

City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chaired the Select Committee on Parks Funding, expressed support for the revisions to the voters' guide language and the initiative title.

"Ultimately I'm very pleased that the changes to the ballot title and the explanatory statement clarify the previous versions," she said. "It gives the campaign an opportunity to show individuals what they're going to get for their money."

Bagshaw added, "You don't want voters to be confused."

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


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