Friday, February 25, 2011


In the name of “sustainable financing” for our parks, a report led by the Seattle Parks Foundation and sponsored by the Arboretum Foundation, MOHAI, Seattle Aquarium Society, Woodland Park Zoological Society, and Cascade Land Conservancy, lays out a strategy that would undermine current protections for Seattle’s parks, especially through special districts and privatization.  The report (released Feb. 16, but dated Jan. 2011) can be found at

The grave flaws in the report can be traced in part to a complete lack of prior public notice, including any invitation for input on its initial scope or to comment on a draft; and biased “survey” questions inviting premature endorsement of options.  (I suggest that the survey be avoided until the options are better analyzed in a revised report and more fairly described in a future survey.)  The Seattle Parks Supt. and the Chair of the Parks Board both sit ex officio on the Seattle Parks Foundation’s board (and probably on the boards of several other sponsoring groups)--not a good sign that the City will independently evaluate the report’s proposals.  It’s all a sobering lesson in how such organizations and the City government itself see accountability, as the report calls for the City to turn over to them much greater control over our parks.     

There are good things in the report (especially its analysis of the financial needs of our parks and how the Mayor and City Council have increasingly starved them of funds), but its analysis of options downplays those (such as impact fees on developers) that would fund our parks better under current management.  Meanwhile, the study paints a rosy picture of the parks under future special districts and privatization, conclusions it reaches through misstatements and ignoring key issues.   

There’s not the space here to analyze all parts of the report, but of most serious concern is that, despite all of the information below regarding their proposal for a Metropolitan Park District (MPD) having been provided to the Seattle Parks Foundation and its cohorts and to Bounds and Byers last year, they continue to push this alternative without addressing the serious issues raised.  They have dollar signs in their eyes regarding the $88 million/year additional property tax base an MPD brings, but without even mentioning that state legislation could provide to cities that already have a Park Department that same additional tax base without needing to create a parallel and unaccountable new government.     

Seattle’s parks, community centers, nature centers, and other Park Department facilities are endangered by proposals for a Metropolitan Park District. The authors of Sustaining Seattle’s Parks claim (p. 52) that an MPD would not be a “separate district.”  They are incorrect--irresponsibly so.  Like the ill-fated Monorail Authority, a Seattle Metropolitan Park District would be a state-chartered district, 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.  Were Seattle to create a Metropolitan Park District with the City Councilmembers being the district board members, this entity would be state-chartered and thus not be bound by anything in Seattle’s Charter, ordinances, resolutions, or regulations.  This loss of accountability could not 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.   

Background on MPDs.  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.” 

Public officials and civic leaders who should be strong stewards of Seattle’s parks and of open government have been rushing to establish a Seattle Metropolitan Park District without analysis or public discussion of the serious accountability issues that would accompany an MPD under current law.  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 Seattle-sought 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.  Several cities or counties have since created Metropolitan Park Districts in which their parks have suffered from the very issues of accountability and democratic control addressed here.  It is to the discredit of Seattle that this misplaced lobbying opened up loopholes that are undermining parks all over the state, and now could eliminate current Seattle parks’ protections if we take their advice and go for an MPD.  

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.  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.

Authors of the report are attracted by the additional property tax capacity that it would bring, including the right to raise property taxes further without need for further voter approval.  They don’t mention 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, 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 the City Charter or 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 as 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, 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.   (Remember, the state law regarding MPDs doesn’t allow voters to close down an MPD by ballot measure.)  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 without removal by state legislation of the following invitations to abuse.  In the discussion below there are many citations to the Washington MPD statute, which can be found at   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 the Board of Parks Commissioners (Park Board), and also the 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 essential changes in state law, a Seattle MPD would be an historic mistake, and proposals for one (and for other special districts and privatization) are letting the Mayor and City Council off the hook from fully 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 helps.

Don’t take the above concerns just from me.  Let’s urge City Attorney Pete Holmes to prepare and release to the public a detailed legal memorandum analyzing the various issues raised.  Back in 1999, parks and good government advocates urged the City to release to the public a thorough analysis of the legal and policy issues, but twelve years later, the City hasn’t done so.  During most of Seattle’s history, City Attorneys (with the exception of a few recently, including the one Pete defeated) have issued such public legal memos, and Holmes promised during the campaign that he would start doing so again.   A good start would be for him to issue a detailed public legal opinion on the issues raised above.  You can contact City Attorney Pete Holmes at, by voice mail at (206) 684-8200, by fax at (206) 684-8284, or by mail at PO Box 94769, Seattle 98124-4769.

The Seattle City Council in 1999 rejected a Seattle Metropolitan Park District proposal led by Ken Bounds (then Park Supt.) and Tom Byers (then Deputy Mayor) because of concerns about loss of accountability and protections for our parks.  Now Bounds and Byers have again favorably recommended an MPD and other special districts but completely ignored the concerns. 

The Seattle Parks Foundation, Arboretum Foundation, MOHAI, Cascade Land Conservancy, and Aquarium and Zoo societies issued the Bounds/Byers report without prior public notice, without asking for input, without issuing a draft for comment, and without ensuring coverage of the accountability issues that have been raised about its proposals for an MPD and other special districts and for privatization that would in many cases give entities like themselves more control over parks that are currently public.  Their handling of this report is a reminder of why unaccountable entities should not be given such power, and why we must fight to maintain the public’s sovereignty over Seattle parks.

Chris Leman, author of the above statement, is a social scientist (Ph.D, Harvard University) who formerly was on the faculties of UW and Brandeis University, and at 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 

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