An unraveled real estate deal that would have expanded a new city park has angered neighborhood leaders in northwest Spokane and, officials say, led to last week’s forced resignation of the parks director.
The bureaucratic fiasco also reawakened tough questions about oversight of Spokane’s nationally recognized park system.
Barry Russell, who resigned as the city’s parks and recreation director on Tuesday, was told Monday in an e-mail by Fairmount Memorial Park cemetery that it no longer was interested in trading 14 acres of wooded property for five acres the city owns adjacent to Joe Albi Stadium. The land was to become a natural area with hiking trails and was a key part of securing neighborhood support for the attached complex featuring sports fields, a BMX track and a skate park.
The news shocked many City Council members and neighborhood leaders, who said they were assured all along that the trade, which was tentatively agreed to in 2007 and approved by the council in February, was “a done deal.”
But city administrators didn’t put the finishing touches on it, and it remained unclear who was supposed to follow through: Officials interviewed this week blamed the parks department, the city’s real estate director, city attorneys, the public works department, the Park Board, the mayor or any number of combinations.
City Administrator Ted Danek said he’s “trying to determine how the breakdown happened.”
What is clear is that the issue at least partially led to Russell’s resignation.
City Councilman Bob Apple, who serves on the Park Board, said Mayor Mary Verner, in response to the cemetery’s decision, told Russell on Tuesday: “You can resign or you can be fired.”
Apple, who said Verner used Russell as a “whipping boy,” said he and most of the Park Board believe Russell was doing good work and that the matter was out of park department hands.
Park Board member Randy Cameron said city administrators told the Park Board that Russell was put on notice that he was “deficient” in “communication and follow-up.”
“There were some on the board who thought he was doing a good job,” Cameron said. “There are some who thought he wasn’t doing a bad job.”
In an interview Thursday, Verner declined to comment on Russell’s resignation or Apple’s characterization of it.
She said she would take the blame for the botched deal: “Ultimately the buck stops at my desk.” She added that she will “try to salvage it, if possible.”
Attempts made to reach Russell last week were unsuccessful.
An ambiguous system
The new park, much of which is being constructed over former soccer fields at Dwight Merkel Field, also played a role in Verner’s firing of former Park Director Mike Stone in 2007. Officials, especially members of the City Council, had pointed to the still-undeveloped park funded by a public vote in 1999 as proof of the park system’s inability to get things done.
But oversight of the new park has been complicated over the past decade by property ownership ambiguities, traffic congestion, neighborhood opposition, the city’s park structure and controversies surrounding Joe Albi Stadium.
Spokane’s park system, under the City Charter, is independent from the rest of city government. All spending, park policies and other park decisions are determined by the Park Board.
Under the weak mayor system the city used until 2001, the Park Board hired the parks director. But city attorneys have advised Verner that she has that authority in the strong-mayor City Charter.
That has put the director in an odd position at times when the Park Board and mayor disagree over the director’s priorities. Oversight has been further blurred on the new park near Joe Albi Stadium because the land, unlike the city’s other parks, was not technically owned by the park system when the deal was first negotiated in 2007, even though the property is owned by the city.
Interim Park Director Leroy Eadie said Verner has directed him to make the land deal his “No. 1 priority.”
Former Mayor Dennis Hession, a former Park Board president, called the matter “complicated,” but added, “I do think the park director has two masters.”
He said citizens intended that the Park Board “make decisions on the park system without the advice and consent of the mayor or the City Council.” But, Hession added, the director is “answerable to the mayor as all (city) employees are answerable to the mayor.”
Asked if ambiguities in the system led to the land trade’s undoing, Verner said: “That’s exactly why I’m taking responsibility for it.” She said she plans to convene a task force to study the park system and recommend possible changes to park oversight.
Despite the celebrated opening of several new pools, it’s been a tumultuous year in the parks department, largely over controversies involving the purchase of the former downtown YMCA, the proposed Mobius science museum and the reversal of the city’s longtime tradition of providing free swimming to kids. In response, some City Council members, including Mike Allen, have suggested that the Park Board should be elected.
The deal maker
Apple said the land swap was supposed to be overseen by the city’s real estate officials and city attorneys. The deal was presented to the City Council in February by Dave Steele, then the city’s real estate director. A short time later he was promoted to a job overseeing efforts to save money within city government.
The land deal was an essential ingredient to winning neighborhood support to finally move forward with plans to build the new park, which is north of Joe Albi Stadium. Neighborhood concerns about traffic and other issues had held up construction of the park since funding had first become available to build it about a decade ago.
In 2007, then-City Councilman Rob Crow worked with neighborhood leaders, park officials and others to win support for the park’s creation, and later to secure backing for a $43 million bond issue to add more funding to the park and to build new swimming pools.
Eric Armstrong, a member of the Northwest Neighborhood Association, said residents wanted the land to maintain open space and a place to walk and jog. He noted much of the new park is filled with amenities including a skate park, a BMX track, a parking lot and a fenced softball complex.
Neighbors recently expressed concerns about park construction when they realized that a perimeter trail they were told would be included in the park ended at the sidewalk along Assembly Street. Armstrong said he had been led to believe that the trail was to be part of a natural buffer along all sides of the park and separate from the sidewalk.
“The fact that we haven’t gotten it speaks to the fact that they haven’t taken us seriously,” Armstrong said.
Attempts to reach Duane Broyles, president of the Fairmount Memorial Association, were unsuccessful Thursday and Friday. In 2007, he said the cemetery tentatively agreed to the swap partly because the five acres was seen as an ideal place to relocate a maintenance shop.
Crow said this week he is “upset beyond comprehension” because he and others assured residents that the cemetery land would become part of a natural area in the park.
Some, including Crow, question if the park could have been built without the neighborhood support received by promising the land trade.
“I guarantee you it would have been significantly more difficult,” Crow said. “It was seen as a way to mitigate what was seen as an additional burden to the neighborhood.”
Crow said he “was first in line” to take blame for the breakdown – though he and others say they had been assured until only a few weeks ago that the delay was about working through routine issues.
“Everybody figured everybody else was working on it and nobody had the sense of urgency,” Crow said.
Crow added he was surprised that Russell lost his job over the botched swap.
“I was stunned that he was let go,” said Crow, who is a member of the Park Bond Oversight Committee. Based on his interactions with Russell, Crow said he thought Russell “was doing an excellent job.”
Karen Bell, former chairwoman of the Northwest Neighborhood Association, was one of a few neighbors who withheld full support for the park. That’s because the land swap had not been finalized and she questioned if the Park Board would follow through.
“I had deep reservations because it didn’t happen in a timely manner,” Bell said. “They just wear us down until we give up because they just do as they damn well please. They knew how important this was to us.”