The uniquely Spokane method of governing the city’s park system is once again coming under fire following the public outcry over covering the U.S. Pavilion in Riverfront Park.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said this week that he’s exploring options with Mayor David Condon to potentially ask voters to alter the authority of Spokane’s 11-member Park Board, believed to be a one-of-its-kind government experiment in Washington state that can be traced to 1907.
“It’s a legitimate question to ask. It’s not a power grab,” said Stuckart, who has been critical of the announced early plans not to cover the structure built for Expo ’74.
There’s no proposal on the table yet. But past Park Board and city officials who have experienced efforts to curtail the board’s autonomy cautioned against a hasty decision fueled by disagreement over one specific issue.
“It always comes up when there’s a high-profile decision about which the City Council and Park Board don’t agree,” said Dennis Hession, who served 11 years on the Spokane Park Board before joining the City Council and later being appointed mayor. “That’s a bad time to make that choice, in my view.”
Stuckart countered that such disputes, such as the covering of the U.S. Pavilion or complaints the board focused too much on Riverfront Park and golf, are the perfect time to discuss changes in government.
“When contentious issues come up, you should have a community discussion, when a contentious issue is being decided by nonelected officials that aren’t accountable to anyone,” Stuckart said.
Hession said Park Board officials are accountable through the appointment process, which is instigated by the mayor’s office and put to an up-or-down vote by the entire City Council.
The appointment system has been in place since Aubrey L. White led the first park commission more than a century ago. The council has exercised its authority over appointees in the past, including in 2007, when two Hession appointments were voted down due to a perceived lack of diversity on the panel.
Steve Salvatori, another official with perspective as both a City Council member and Park Board appointee, said he was neutral on the issue of whether the board’s operations and authority should change and would support a vote of the public. He didn’t believe granting authority of the City Council over the Park Board, or making the positions elected, would have had any effect on the current kerfuffle over a pavilion cover.
“The council does not have time anyway, right now,” said Salvatori, noting the recent dispute over whether council pay should reflect that it’s a full-time job. “They don’t have time to be post de facto Park Board members.”
Hession also said elected officials at City Hall have to handle an array of issues, while board members can focus on the 87 parks in the city’s sprawling 4,100-acre system.
“That’s their sole directive. That’s not true for the City Council,” Hession said.
‘A government in a government’
In 1907, a group of prominent Spokane businessmen, led by White, argued the mayor and elected officials were ignoring public greenspaces in pursuit of further industrial development.
“The time has come when we must wake up and pay more attention to parks than has been devoted to them in the past,” wrote W.H. Shields, a life insurance agent, in a statement to the Spokane Daily Chronicle on April 10.
By a tally of 2,899 to 924, Spokane voters approved on May 7 the creation of the new 10-member, nonpartisan appointed board. Those members selected White as their first president, a title he would hold for 15 years. In 1910, voters approved a $1 million bond ($24 million in 2016 dollars, when adjusted for inflation) to purchase park lands and put into place charter amendments shaping the Park Board, some of which remain in place today.
After White’s early booster efforts for an independent Park Board, Stuckart noted, White led that organization and controlled a budget that was untouchable by city elected leaders.
“The person that led the campaign, then becomes the first Park Board chair, that’s fascinating to me,” Stuckart said.
White, who has been called the father of Spokane parks, set as his goal the creation of a system in which any resident was a 10- or 15-minute walk from a public greenspace. His penchant for snatching up land along the Spokane River for conservation efforts led the National Municipal League, based in New York, to dub him “Spokane’s Civic Horse-Trader” in 1940.
Stuckart asked for guidance on how other Washington cities govern their park systems from the Gonzaga Environmental Law Clinic. Brad Sharp, a second-year Gonzaga law student, pieced together a grid illustrating the unique makeup of Spokane’s Park Board. Chief among the defining attributes was a dedicated budget equaling 8 percent of the city’s general fund spending in the previous year across all departments, a sum that is spent solely upon authorization by the Park Board.
“For the majority of all park boards in the state, the funds are dispersed by budget requests. They’ll get an approval for ‘x’ dollars annually by city government,” Sharp said.
For 2017, the Spokane Park Board’s budget must total at least $14.6 million, based on the city’s spending last year. That amount doesn’t include the $64.3 million bond that is funding improvements in Riverfront Park.
Only Tacoma has a system that comes close to the independence Spokane’s Park Board receives, Sharp said. The park system in Washington’s third-largest city is governed by an elected board of five park commissioners with the power to levy taxes. That system was developed under an old state law that allowed the creation of an entity completely separate from municipal government.
Changing the makeup of Spokane’s Park Board requires an additional step not present in other Washington cities: amending the city charter on a majority vote of the citizens. The difficulty of mounting a successful political campaign has not stopped some from proposing, or hinting at, changes.
The last serious attempt to alter how Park Board members are selected came in 2000, when then-City Councilman Steve Eugster proposed slashing membership in half and having members be elected by the public.
“The Park Board is institutionalized and has its agenda and no one else’s,” Eugster said at the time. “They are a government in a government.”
Eugster’s proposal for a five-member elected body was eventually scrapped before the public could weigh in. In the intervening years, changes to the city charter – the document that grants the Park Board its unique authority among Washington cities – have been proposed, including one that would have eliminated the board’s authority to condemn property. Voters declined to strip the board of that power in a 2011 vote. It remains one of the few holdovers from the 1910 city charter, and another unique ability of Spokane’s Park Board in Washington.
Eugster, who led the charge for a change in Spokane’s charter that created the strong-mayor form of government, said he’d still support electing the board. But he balked at a proposal that would require City Council authorization of Park Board decisions.
“I certainly wouldn’t want the City Council to get control of that,” Eugster said, referring to recent statements by council members questioning the existence of chemtrails and floating support of a fine on coal and oil trains traveling through downtown. “I don’t like politicizing the Park Board, beyond in terms of who you’re electing to run the board.”
The pavilion - a political lightning rod?
The thorny question of covering the pavilion, what Councilman Mike Fagan called “a looming public relations issue,” is most likely to be solved before any Park Board alterations, Stuckart said.
“As a governance structure change, I think we’re too late there,” the council president said.
If the question of covering the building, built for Expo ’74 with a vinyl sheathing that lasted about five years, had been before the City Council, Stuckart believed there would have been more eyeballs on the design. The public might have urged the design team to reconsider using available money to explore a new covering, he said.
“I think there’s a lot more scrutiny on council,” Stuckart said.
The council president said he’d like to delay a final decision on the pavilion design another 60 days, pushing its completion from September to November, in order to gain more input on the design and take a look at the Park Board’s books for the centerpiece project of the Riverfront Park redesign.
Salvatori, who joined the board earlier this year and served on the City Council when the redevelopment plan was being drafted, was skeptical a delay would change anything based on information provided by park staff, including an engineer’s assessment that it would cost a half million dollars and delay construction of the new structure by several years to determine if the pavilion’s cable netting could support a cover.
“It’s still not going to get covered. Structurally, it’s not possible. That’s my opinion,” Salvatori said.
“This is not a political issue. This is a structural and engineering issue,” he added.
Stuckart said he understood a request to re-evaluate how the Park Board operates would raise eyebrows. He praised the work of current and past Park Board members, but also believed the time was right to take another look at the 110-year-old institution.
“I have a lot of respect for city boards. I know how much work it is,” Stuckart said. “I know raising this question does cause consternation, but it’s a legitimate question to ask on the accountability end.”
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