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A METROPOLITAN PARK DISTRICT WOULD UNDERMINE ACCOUNTABILITY AND FUNDING FOR SEATTLE’S PARKS

Those who love Seattle’s parks, community centers, nature centers, and other Department of Parks and Recreation facilities should beware of a quiet effort by City officials and favored insiders to establish a Metropolitan Park District (MPD) that would have the power to adopt permanently a $54 million increase in property taxes–the largest single tax increase in City history. Whereas parks levies are more moderate in cost and require regular voter approval and oversight of tax levels and of how the parks are being managed, an MPD would eliminate accountability, bringing an irreversible increase in property tax rates, and with the parks suffering a decline in their share of current property taxes and reliance on funding junior to other tax districts and thus less reliable than the current sources.

On April 28, 2014, the Seattle City Council voted to put an MPD measure on the August 5 primary ballot–a date chosen specifically because they knew that fewer voters would be participating than with the larger and more skeptical electorate in November. This was only the latest of a series of actions by City officials and their handpicked Parks and Recreation Legacy Citizens’ Advisory Committee created under Res. 31454 , to press for an MPD while hiding from the public an MPD’s true and negative consequences.

Under a Metropolitan Park District, our parks would lose hard-won protections, openness, and participation because, although an MPD would be governed by the City Councilmembers, they would be acting as the individual board members of a special district–a separate government not governed by Seattle’s Charter, ordinances, resolutions, regulations, or code of ethics, or even by the Council’s own rules. The MPD would be governed only by state laws, which are weaker than Seattle’s and which the legislature could further weaken at any time.

This loss of accountability from an MPD cannot be cured by unenforceable promises in the April 28 ordinance that placed it on the ballot, nor by a promised “interlocal agreement” between the MPD and the City, because the City Councilmembers, in their new guise as a state MPD board, would have under its charter full power to repeal or ignore these protections.

Our parks’ stewardship must not be taken from the people, and our parks must not cede their claim on general funds. What the parks need is for the Mayor and City Council to stop starving them, and for the Mayor and Council to fully fund the parks, as did previous generations of City leaders.

City officials are deliberately and systematically denying the citizens and taxpayers of Seattle straight and full answers to the questions about Metropolitan Park Districts raised below. In the past year as they joined to press an MPD with the voters, the Mayor, City Council, City Attorney, Parks Board, and Parks Legacy Citizens Advisory Committee all refused to provide detailed public analyses of concerns that have been raised, such as in an Oct. 3, 2013 letter to them from the City Neighborhood Council. Of course, City officials have these analyses for themselves (compiled at taxpayer expense by City lawyers, but the officials are keeping this essential information from the voters, by inappropriate claims of “attorney-client privilege.”

Exemplifying the current chicanery and the unaccountability to come is the City’s adoption on April 28 of a ballot title and ballot summary that shamelessly misrepresent the measure, hiding the tax increase to come and also the huge and unaccountable powers of the new MPD board. To correct this outrage, citizens must go to King County Superior Court, not to the City’s own Ethics and Elections Commission. Quickly disproving claims by City officials that the MPD would obey the City Charter and ordinances, this overriding of City requirements by less accountable state requirements is just the first of countless instances to come in which the MPD will be beyond control by Seattle citizens.

Background on MPDs. In the discussion below there are many citations to Washington’s MPD statute, http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=35.61. Although unaccountable to Seattle voters (who would be denied by state law even the ability to close it down by public initiative), a Metropolitan Park District would under state law have vast powers of eminent domain, employment, taxation, and the issuance of bonds, and it could operate a wide range of businesses, including stadiums and performing venues, airports, port facilities, and anything else “it shall judge desirable or beneficial for the public, or for the production of revenue for expenditure for park purposes.”

Some of the advocates for an MPD see themselves as park stewards, and so it is disheartening that they have not provided analysis or public discussion of the accountability problems that an MPD poses. See, for example, the web site of the Seattle Parks Foundation, which does not even mention the governance changes inherent in an MPD.

The Seattle Parks Foundation’s earlier report, “Sustaining Seattle’s Parks,” makes the claim (p. 52) that an MPD would not be a “separate district.” That claim is demonstrably, outrageously false. A Seattle Metropolitan Park District would be a state-chartered corporation separate from the City, free of protections for our parks and the democratic process that have been painstakingly built into the Seattle City Charter, ordinances, resolutions, and regulations.

Instead of seeking improvements in state law that could have addressed some of these accountability problems in a Seattle MPD, in 2002 the Mayor and City Council successfully lobbied for a change that further reduced an MPD’s accountability–allowing City Councilmembers or County Councilmembers to serve as the governing body [RCW 35.61.050 (3)]. This Seattle-induced change in state law gave the City Councilmembers a potential new source of unaccountable power, while eliminating the independently elected park commissioners who would otherwise be in charge and be more accountable because their election would depend entirely on how they handled these duties. It is to the discredit of Seattle that its misplaced lobbying opened up loopholes that are undermining parks all over the state, and now could boomerang back to eliminate current Seattle parks’ protections.

Unlike almost any other Seattle program, the City’s parks and their funding needs are recognized in the City Charter. But mayors and city councils have had other priorities, giving parks an ever decreasing share of City funds. The Mayor and City Council should correct this imbalance, not create a Metropolitan Park District that, under current state law, would make Parks Department funding even shakier and destroy the park system’s protections and accountability. An MPD would increase taxes by $88 million/year without guaranteeing even one more dollar for our parks. Were a Seattle MPD to be established with its own limited claim on property taxes, advocates for reducing City spending or for spending more on fire, police, and social needs will have a case against the spending of City property taxes for parks, and these funds are likely to diminish further. Tacoma once had a well-regarded and well-funded Parks Department, but it withered away once the Tacoma MPD was established.

Advocates for a Seattle Metropolitan Park District point to the additional property tax capacity that it would bring (including the right to raise property taxes further) without need for regular voter approval. They don’t mention (not a word about this in the Seattle Parks Foundation’s “Sustaining Seattle’s Parks” report) that the tax capacity of Metropolitan Park Districts is junior to other taxing entities such as school districts, the Port of Seattle, the County, and the City itself. In years when property tax revenues are down, a Seattle MPD would suffer huge losses. The largest existing MPD (Tacoma) has been chronically short of revenue, forcing it to ask voters for funding just as if it were part of the City government. State law prohibits a City from contributing funds to an MPD unless the City declares an emergency.

If Seattle really wants the additional tax base that state law allows to a Metropolitan Park District, it should seek a change in state law, providing this additional tax base to a City that chooses not to create an MPD. Establishing an MPD under the current state law, with all of the accountability problems that it would bring, is not a responsible way to increase park funding.

Problems in accountability and state law. The City Councilmembers, in meeting as the Metropolitan Board of Park Commissioners, would not be covered by any City ordinances, resolutions, or regulations–not even by their own City Council rules. They would be acting as a state-chartered body, and thus be subject only to state laws and regulations. And unlike the elected Tacoma MPD commissioners, the City Councilmembers would not be elected specifically for their work on a Seattle MPD, greatly diminishing their accountability for what they would do as the MPD’s governing board.

Some argue that Seattle can get around the unaccountability of the City Councilmembers acting as the state-chartered MPD Board of Park Commissioners by writing into the MPD’s charter that it must obey the Seattle Charter, ordinances, resolutions, and regulations. But such a requirement could not stand up in court, as state agencies are not subordinate to local agencies, and no agency can be bound beforehand by charter provisions, laws, and regulations that may be passed in the future.

It would also be unworkable if, acting as a state-chartered MPD Board of Park Commissions, the City Councilmembers tried to re-enact as MPD policies the City Charter and the hundreds of thousands of pages of City ordinances, resolutions, and regulations, including the constant changes as they arise. Even worse: acting as an MPD Board, the City Councilmembers could repeal any of those commitments at any time, and unlike with their decisions under the City Charter, their decisions as an MPD Board would be beyond any power of the public to challenge by initiative or referendum, which are expressly denied in the case of an MPD. As a local government, Seattle now has home rule and more than a century of protections for parks and citizens rights. These it would all be giving up by creating a state-chartered Metropolitan Park District.

Seattle should not even consider establishing a Metropolitan Park District unless the following invitations to abuse are removed by amending state law. Under current law (which could be worsened further, without any way for Seattle voters to prevent it), a Seattle MPD would have the following powers:

• Can acquire property, including by eminent domain (condemnation), and not only for parks, playgrounds, parkways, and boulevards, but also to “widen, alter, and extend streets” and to build and operate airports [RCW 35.61.130].

• Can acquire City property (including street rights of way) by transfer without the procedural safeguards and public notice required when the City transfers property to other entities [RCW 35.61.290, RCW 39.30.010].

• Can increase the property tax assessment on adjoining private properties that it claims have benefited from any street improvement it has done [RCW 35.61.220].

• Can establish local improvement districts (additional taxes in a limited area) [RCW 36.69.200].

• Can “sell, exchange, or otherwise dispose of” property by declaring it surplus [RCW 35.61.132].

• Can issue revenue bonds and general obligation bonds, many without voter approval [RCW 35.61.100-115, RCW 39.46.110].

• Can use “community revitalization financing” (tax increment financing), under which a portion of the taxes collected in an area near one of its facilities can be denied to citywide uses or schools and be kept for its own use [RCW 35.61.137, RCW 39.89.050].

• Can commission its own police officers with full police powers [RCW 35.61.370].

• Can conduct any business activities “as it shall judge desirable or beneficial for the public, or for the production of revenue for expenditure for park purposes” [RCW 35.61.130]. This includes merchandise and food sales, concerts and other entertainments, and the operation of airports and port facilities.

• Can fund a wide range of public improvements, including street construction and maintenance, water, sewer, and drainage construction, sidewalks and streetlights, parking, and terminal and dock facilities [RCW 839.89.020].

• Is not subject to any of the initiative and referendum powers that citizens have in the City Charter. Although initially established by voters, an MPD cannot be undone by voters. RCW 35.61.310 gives sole MPD dissolution power to the MPD board itself, to be exercised if the City Council asks itself as the MPD board to do so, or if ten percent of the number of voters in the last general election petition them to do so.

• RCW 53.48.040 appears to require that the assets of the dissolved MPD be sold off–a new threat to the future of our parks among the many that an MPD would introduce.

• Is not subject to any of Seattle’s laws and regulations on competitive bidding, equal employment, human rights, ethics, civil service, whistleblower protection, percent for the arts, tree protection, and even the comprehensive plan.

• Escapes the jurisdiction of all of Seattle’s boards and commissions, even its Board of Parks Commissioners (Park Board), and also its Civil Service Commission, Public Safety Civil Service Commission, Ethics and Elections Commission, Design Commission, Planning Commission, Human Rights Commission, and Commission for People with Disabilities.

• Is not subject to the overwhelmingly passed Initiative 42, a law which protects Seattle parks from being misused, sold or given away.

• Can acquire and manage land outside the City limits [RCW 35.61.130].

• Can annex land outside the City limits [RCW 35.61.275].

Conclusion. Without major changes in state law, a Seattle MPD would become an unaccountable juggernaut, and proposals for an MPD are letting the Mayor and City Council off the hook from funding our parks from the City treasury. Hard-won protections must not be sold for a sketchy increase in property taxes, which state law should allow to Seattle and other localities without their having to create a state-chartered MPD that endangers the very parks it purports to help.

Parks advocates have formed Our Parks Forever, a campaign committee to oppose a Metropolitan Park District in the August 5 election and to urge that it be replaced in future elections by the regular accountability of parks levies. Please consider joining and donating to this important effort.

Chris Leman, author of this analysis, is a social scientist (Ph.D, Harvard University) formerly with the University of Washington, Brandeis University, and Resources for the Future, Inc. and the Office of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. He can be reached at (206) 322-5463 and cleman@oo.net.

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