Monday, May 3, 2010



To Seattle park advocates:

Thank you to those who are re-circulating my earlier analysis that raised questions about a possible Seattle Metropolitan Park District. But please discard and replace it with this retitled and rewritten version that I sent April 28 to the Seattle Parks Board. It includes many more citations to the Washington MPD statute, which can be found at

This revision also refutes claims that a state-chartered MPD’s overriding of Seattle’s Charter, ordinances, resolutions, and regulations that now protect our parks and open government could somehow be cured by the wording of a Seattle ballot measure or by the City Council’s re-enactment of these lost protections in its new guise as a state MPD board.

Neither the Parks Board nor the Seattle Parks Foundation have taken a position on whether an MPD would be good for Seattle. My hope is that they and other groups will urge the Mayor and City Council to better fund our parks without an MPD, and urge the City Attorney to release to the public a detailed legal memorandum analyzing the various issues raised below. Without major changes in state law, a Seattle MPD would be an historic mistake, and the proposals 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 supposedly is helping.

Chris Leman (206) 322-5463



Seattle’s parks, community centers, nature centers, and other Park Department facilities are endangered by proposals for a state-chartered Metropolitan Park District. Like the ill-fated Monorail Authority, a Seattle Metropolitan Park District would operate under a state charter, evading any of the protections that have been painstakingly built into the City Charter, ordinances, resolutions, and regulations. As a state entity, a Seattle MPD would be governed only by state laws, which are weaker and which the legislature could further weaken at any time.

Background. Although unaccountable to Seattle voters (who would be denied even the ability to close it down by public initiative), a Metropolitan Park District would 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.”

It is disturbing that public officials and civic leaders who should be strong stewards of Seattle’s parks and of open government have been quietly rushing to establish a Seattle Metropolitan Park District without thorough analysis or public discussion of the serious accountability issues that would accompany an MPD under current state law. Seattle should be strongly opposed to an MPD until major improvements are made in the state legislation, as listed below.

Instead of seeking the needed improvements in state law, in 2002 Seattle successfully lobbied for a change that further reduced an MPD’s accountability--allowing a City Council or County Council to serve as the governing body of a Metropolitan Park District [RCW 35.61.050 (3)]. This change eliminated the independently elected park commissioners who would otherwise be in charge of the District, and who would be more accountable because their election would depend entirely on their stewardship of parks facilities.

Unlike almost any other Seattle program, the City’s parks and their funding needs are recognized in the City Charter. Unfortunately, mayors and city councils have had other priorities, giving parks an ever decreasing portion 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 would destroy the park system’s protections and accountability.

Advocates for a Seattle Metropolitan Park District are attracted by the small additional property tax capacity that it would have without need for regular voter approval. But they forget 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, in Tacoma, has been chronically short of revenue, forcing it to ask voters for funding just as if it were part of the Tacoma City government. State law prohibits a City from contributing funds to an MPD unless the City declares an emergency.

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 once the Tacoma MPD was established.

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, 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 Council, in meeting as the Metropolitan Board of Park Commissioners, would not be covered by any City ordinances, resolutions, or regulations--not even by its own City Council rules. It 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 on the MPD’s governing board.

Some argue that Seattle can get around the unaccountability of a City Council acting as the state-chartered MPD Board of Park Commissioners by writing into a Seattle 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 Council 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 Council could repeal any of those commitments at any time, and unlike with its decisions under the City Charter, its decisions would be beyond any power of the public to challenge by initiative or referendum, which do not apply to 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 a Metropolitan Park District.

Seattle should not even consider establishing a Metropolitan Park District without removal of the following invitations to abuse. Most of the solutions would require a change in state law. Under current state 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, 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 this sole power to the MPD board, and only if ten percent of the number of voters in the last election have petitioned them with this request.

· 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. The Seattle City Council in 1999 considered a proposal for establishment of a Metropolitan Park District, rejecting it because of many of the above concerns. At that time, parks and good government advocates urged the City to release to the public a thorough analysis of the legal and policy issues that they had raised. Now eleven years later, the City has still not done so.

Now that the issue of a Seattle Metropolitan Park District is arising again, the public is no closer to receiving from the City even the semblance of a careful analysis of the legal and policy issues that are listed above. There is one hope, in that City Attorney Pete Holmes (if enough people urge him to do so) may issue a detailed public legal opinion on the subject.

Please act! The Mayor, City Attorney, and City Council need to hear from you on this issue. Contact the Mayor at, by voice mail at (206) 684-4000, by fax at (206) 284-5360, and by mail at P.O. Box 94729, Seattle 98124-4025. Contact City Attorney Pete Holmes at, by voice mail at (206) 684-8200, by fax at (206) 684-8284, and by mail at PO Box 94769, Seattle 98124-4769. It’s always best to write each Councilmember separately, not address them all in one message. The City Council fax number is (206) 684-8587, and the U.S. mail address is P.O. Box 34025, Seattle, WA 98124-4025. Here are the e-mails and voice mails: 684-8802 684-8806 684-8808 684-8807 684-8805 684-8800 684-8804 684-8803 684-8801

The above alert is authored by Chris Leman, who can be reached at (206) 322-5463 and

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