In late February, the furor over the Seattle Parks Department's decision to allow One Reel to site its summer concert series at Gas Works Park brought into the limelight a series of neighborhood protests of what some perceived as top-down, often commercially driven Seattle Parks and Recreation decisions (See "No Peace in the Parks," March 1). While the controversies have faded from the headlines, neighborhood activists have persevered. And their efforts are starting to bear fruit.
On Tuesday, June 27, King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum ruled in favor of Friends of Gas Works Park, the group that sued the city to stop One Reel's plans to hold the summer concert series at Gas Works in 2007. The 2006 series, which was to be held at Gas Works for the first time, was canceled after the group filed its lawsuit, but the city and One Reel have vowed to host One Reel's concerts at Gas Works in future years.
Lum ruled that because Gas Works Park is atop a toxic waste site—it's a former coal-to-gas conversion plant—the city is required to do an environmental review before approving the concerts. If the city decides to comply, the review could be done by the end of the year; if it is favorable, that's plenty of time to hold the 2007 concerts. But conducting an environmental review is something Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds and the Parks Department have in the past refused to do for special park events.
But the activists want more—a lot more. Cheryl Trivison, founder and past president of Friends of Gas Works Park, says the purpose of the suit wasn't just to force an environmental review in this situation. "My goal is that the city use [environmental review] for any events of this scope and scale," she says. Lum's ruling isn't that broad but sets a narrow standard for any future suit. Beyond that, and even beyond preventing the concerts from happening at all, Trivison thinks there's a still broader goal "to get city government to be responsive to the citizens of the city. That's how everyone feels."
A second suit against the city related to a park awaits a ruling. Business owners and residents adjacent to Occidental Park sued to prevent the city from cutting down some of the park's trees as part of a developer-driven redesign. When a judge ruled that the neighbors needed to post $115,000 in bond money to cover what the Parks Department claimed would be the cost of delaying the project, the plaintiffs were unable to do so, and the tree-cutting went forward.
But so did the suit. Last week, a court heard arguments in the case from the neighbors and the city; a decision is expected in about two weeks.
On another front of the war between neighborhoods and the Parks Department, Trivison of Friends of Gas Works Park was one of several leaders of community groups critical of Bounds and the Parks Department who testified last week at a public hearing of the City Council's Special Committee on Charter Amendments. Every council member but Jan Drago was present to hear public testimony on 12 city charter amendments that the committee proposes to present to Seattle voters on the November ballot.
Most of the proposed amendments are technical and noncontroversial. Amendment 1, for example, provides for alternate meeting locations for the City Council in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. But of particular interest to Trivison and other Parks Department watchdogs is Amendment 3, which provides that the city's 10 department heads would be reappointed by the mayor and reconfirmed by the council every four years.
Currently, five department heads undergo reappointment, but five do not: those of the Police Department, Financial and Clerical, Fire, Parks, and Personnel System and Civil Service. That set includes the department head that historically has been the most politicized and controversial, the police chief, but it also includes Bounds, a long-tenured department head whose close alliance with Mayor Greg Nickels has insulated him from the numerous complaints besieging the City Council. Until now.
The result of all those complaints is council member Peter Steinbrueck's proposed charter amendment that would, most immediately, give the City Council veto power over Bounds' potential reappointment. After years of criticism of the City Council as being too timid to stand up to the forceful Nickels, Steinbrueck's proposed charter amendment is a direct challenge to the authority of Nickels and the mayor's office.
Should the council decide, over Nickels' unsurprising opposition, to send Amendment 3 to Seattle voters Nov. 7, there will be fireworks. And Trivison and her neighborhood colleagues will be there, likely forming the backbone of the "yes" campaign. A committee decision is expected July 21.
For Trivison, it's been an education. "For almost every single person involved, this is our first time doing any of this," she says. "We get empowered doing this."
So, it seems, does the City Council.