On a wet July afternoon in Fremont, Toby Thaler approaches a light green house on Baker Avenue Northwest, armed with a stack of campaign fliers.
“I’m walking the precinct because I’m opposing the Democrats,” Thaler, an attorney and liberal community activist, tells Marya Felenchak on her front porch.
“You’re opposing the Democrats?” asks Felenchak, sounding surprised.
Thaler launches into his pitch: The plan for a Metropolitan Park District in Seattle lacks citizen oversight. It creates a permanent board run by the City Council that can’t be dissolved by voters. It would implement a tax structure with no accountability.
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“Yeah, this is a little sketchy here,” says Felenchak, perusing the literature. She takes a few extra copies. “I can share this with some of my lady friends.”
By Aug. 5, city voters will decide if a Metropolitan Park District is right for Seattle. Ballots with the initiative, called Proposition 1, went out last week.
The district would be a new entity of the Seattle government, with the power to raise revenue for parks via property tax.
Supporters say it’s necessary to properly fund the growing city’s park system for the future, as well as knocking out a $267 million maintenance backlog. They say Proposition 1 is a better alternative to the current levy system and will create sustainable financial backing for parks, community centers and other public facilities.
But community members like Thaler argue the plan gives too much discretion to City Council members, and, unlike the current levy system — which must be re-approved by voters each time it expires — it lacks routine community input.
Heated debate over the ballot measure turned physical this week at a pro-Proposition 1 rally, when opponents forced their way into the Yesler Community Center to protest the park-district plan. Anti-Proposition 1 demonstrators say those holding the rally attempted to unfairly keep them out; supporters hosting the event say they rented the space and the group had no right to come in and protest.
The campaign pushing Proposition 1 has raised almost 10 times as much as its opponents, according to campaign-finance records. The group also counts scores of volunteers and high-profile endorsements.
In these last weeks of the campaign, both sides plan to step up their ground game and make final pleas to persuade voters.
“We’re either gonna win fighting or lose fighting, but either way we’re in it,” said Don Harper, chairman of Our Parks Forever — the campaign against the park-district proposal — who led the charge into the community meeting this week. “We feel the momentum is actually building on our side.”
Accountability an issue
At first glance, it might be difficult to distinguish between the two campaigns. Even their names seem to convey the same message (the group supporting Proposition 1 is called Seattle Parks For All). Both also claim to be passionate advocates for the city’s park system. The fundamental ideological difference comes down to the proposed structure of the park district.
Currently, Seattle’s parks are funded by the city’s general fund and $24 million raised annually by a six-year levy, which expires this year. If the ballot measure passes next month, the Metro Park District would have the power to tax up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — which would cost the owner of a $450,000 home about $338 a year.
Council members, however, say they plan to tax only 33 cents per $1,000, costing that homeowner about $149 annually. At that rate, the district is projected to raise up to $48 million a year — twice that of the current levy, which collects about 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
“After years of analysis looking at other parks system, this is the best option,” said City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
But if a future council wanted to raise the tax, there would be nothing to stop it, which is one reason voters should be skeptical of the ballot measure, said Harper.
“I really think most people don’t know what they’re buying when looking at Proposition 1,” he said. “I think they’re going to vote for this and they’re going to be incredibly surprised with what they end up with.”
Seattle’s sitting City Council members would make up the park board, rather than an independent board of regularly elected commissioners, as with Tacoma’s Metro Park District.
This is a problem for people such as Faye Garneau, a prominent conservative, who said the model gives too much power to the council and not enough to citizens.
If the public doesn’t like how the park district is behaving, she said, they should have the power to fire the district members with a vote. The only way to do so under the Proposition 1 proposal would be to vote City Council members out of office.
“Any changes that are made without public input are not good for the public,” said Garneau. “And the public is supposed to rule the city. That’s America.”
Garneau has contributed $17,500 to the “no” campaign, according to campaign-finance records — about half of the campaign’s total contributions.
A handful of groups, including The Seattle Times editorial board, the Queen Anne Community Council and the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County, have come out against Proposition 1.
The district proposal has found support from Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council and five state legislators. More than 200 volunteers also have signed up to help spread the word, said Seattle Parks For All spokesman Sandeep Kaushik.
The campaign has raised about $350,000. Top donors include Woodland Park Zoological Society, Seattle Aquarium and the Seattle Parks Foundation, which have given a combined total of more than $150,000, records show. Both the zoological society and aquarium are on the council’s proposed list of priority maintenance for the district money, and would benefit directly if the measure passes.
Kaushik denies that the proposal would eliminate citizen accountability, noting the council members would still get community input from a citizen advisory committee. Appointments to that committee would be confirmed by the City Council.
“The reality here is, for all practical purposes, nothing is going to change,” he said. “If anything, there’s more oversight under our proposal than exists currently.”
In the final weeks, Kaushik will ramp up efforts to spread the word through phone banks, door knocking, mailers and online advertisements. He said they’re targeting a wide age range of voters and they’re optimistic the public will come out in favor of the funding mechanism.
“We feel really good about Proposition 1,” Kaushik said. “We think it’s a great package and we think the public agrees with us that this is the right way to go to provide the kind of stable funding for our parks that we really need.”
Harper will also step up efforts with door knocking and the campaign’s first-ever mailer, made possible by a last-minute $15,000 donation from Garneau. He acknowledges his campaign is outgunned, but said he believes his message is resonating with voters.
“We’ll push all the way up to probably the last minute,” he said.
Andy Mannix: firstname.lastname@example.org