Spokane residents love their parks, and they want the Park Board to manage them well. A 30-year-old ballot measure, however, hamstrings management plans. The park department ought to be able to sell surplus property without asking voters for permission.
In 1987, voters amended the city charter to require an election before the city sells any park land. The charter is like a constitution for the city. And just like the U.S. Constitution, lawyers argue over what the language in it means.
The 1987 amendment requires that a majority of voters approve the sale or exchange of “any existing park or portion thereof.” But what is an “existing park”? Is it just a developed and maintained park? What about an informal park property used by neighbors? How about other parcels that the park department happens to own?
The lack of clarity has befuddled park officials who worry that holding an election would be expensive, time-consuming and create uncertainty. As a result, the city sits on useless land that becomes attractive to illegal campers and trash dumping. If the park department could sell a few parcels, the land would go onto the tax rolls and have an owner responsible for upkeep. Proceeds from sales could fund park improvements.
The Park Board this month therefore announced that it would interpret the charter requirement to apply only to land in active use. Land not being used as a park then could be sold without voter approval. A public hearing would take place before any sale.
Residents immediately pushed back. Conservationists and neighborhoods worried they might lose informal open space. Former City Councilman Steve Eugster even warned that he would file a lawsuit against any sale that wasn’t voter-approved. He believes the language of the charter applies broadly to all park department land.
While judicial review might bring clarity, it would create fissures where none should exist. No one wants to see parks turned into apartment buildings.
Hearing the criticism, the Park Board pulled its proposal and sent it back to committee for further review. As long as someone is willing to file a lawsuit, though, no plan the committee could present is likely to avoid a divisive court fight.
This paper opposed the ballot measure in 1987, and it stands by that today. The city – including the Park Board – should be able to manage its assets efficiently without going to voters for every little decision. The park department owns property that it no longer needs. It should sell it after appropriate public review.
Yet there’s no denying that voters in 1987 wanted a say in sales, and that’s now written into the charter.
If city officials want to clear things up, they need to fix the charter, not parse words in a way certain to generate a lawsuit. What voters have done, they can undo. Place a new charter amendment on the ballot to repeal the 1987 amendment. Replace it with a process that features extensive public vetting of any proposed sale. Transparency is key. Residents deserve to know what’s happening well in advance so they can provide valuable input.
Then public officials could do their jobs. In a representative democracy, voters elect leaders to make decisions. Officials develop strategic plans and implement them with input and oversight from the public, not popular veto. Subjecting minor decisions like the disposition of unused property to a ballot item is overkill.
Voters would still hold the ultimate power. As we wrote in 1987, “The proper way to deal with elected representatives is to watch them like a hawk and, if they err, vote them out of office. It is not … to take away their decision-making responsibility and replace it with costly and cumbersome elections every time an awkward issue comes up.”
The City Council appoints the Park Board. If Spokane residents are dissatisfied with how parks are managed, they can elect new City Council members who pledge to appoint different Park Board members.