T
his is a story about the Seattle Parks Department and the August vote that will decide how we pay for its ongoing operation—an issue that has bitterly divided the taxpayers who could foot the bill. But let’s start with a jaguar named Gordo.

In the late ’90s, Woodland Park Zoo was floundering. Owned at the time by the city and part of its 6,200-acre parks system that included everything from the Seattle Aquarium to the Washington Park Arboretum, the zoo struggled to support itself on ticket sales, memberships, and philanthropic contributions. Instead it relied heavily on municipal funds to keep the lions, tigers, and bears fed. And then there was the $32 million renovation proposed in 1999 that would, among other things, provide a new habitat for Gordo, the zoo’s five-year-old male jaguar. In other words money was scarce, which is why parks advocates like Gerry Johnson (then chair of the zoo society’s board of directors), Tom Byers (deputy mayor under Paul Schell), and freshly minted city council member Nick Licata decided to secure Woodland Park’s future by unearthing a relic from Washington state’s past.

In 1909 the state legislature passed a law allowing a city to create a municipal body tasked with the “management, control, improvement, maintenance, and acquisition of parks, parkways, and boulevards.” The so-called metropolitan park district could independently raise property taxes to fund those improvements and maintenance needs in perpetuity, which, as the thinking in 1999 went, would finally bring the zoo out from under the cloud of constant financial insecurity. 

The only hitch was that, as the old law was written, a newly formed park district had to be governed by a separately elected board of commissioners. Worried that the extra layer of bureaucracy would scare off voters, Johnson and his allies enlisted Democratic senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles for help in striking that requirement and giving a municipality’s city council the option to serve in an “ex officio” capacity as the park district board. They anticipated minimal resistance—”Every-one loves a zoo,” Johnson says now—but what they got was war. “It really caught me by surprise,” Kohl-Welles says. “It was pretty wild.”

The bill flew through the House 84-13 in early 1999, but then the rancor began. After a 24-24 vote in the Senate killed the legislation, Kohl-Welles was “outraged.” Describing the scene as a “strange sight,” The Seattle Times reported: “There were nine Democrats voting against their own party’s bill, and six Republicans voting for it.” Tensions rose the following session, when Kohl-Welles reintroduced the bill and watched a coalition—led by a fellow Seattle Democrat, senator Mike Heavey—spike it once again. Heavey, who hugged his fellow opponents of the legislation, said legislators from outside the city were tired of “Seattle--generated BS.”.

Of course, as Tom Byers says, “In politics good ideas have a way of not dying.” Two years later, during the 2002 legislative session, a slightly revised version of the bill passed without so much as an angry word tossed across the aisle.

But here’s where things get weird: The 1999 bill made the ex officio option available only to cities with a population of 500,000 or more—in other words, just Seattle. The 2002 version opened it up to any city of 5,000 or more—and passed without a problem. And yet that very clause is now at the center of local opposition to park districts. On August 5, Seattle will vote on Proposition 1, on whether to establish a park district in Seattle that can raise property taxes as much as 75¢ per $1,000 of assessed value—$330 per year on a $440,000 home. Supporters say it will help raise money to deal with more than $250 million in deferred maintenance. Opponents sum up their argument against the proposition in boldface type in the voter pamphlet: “The [Metropolitan Park District] would not be accountable to the people of Seattle.”

The ultimate irony in the city’s 15-year drama over voting on a permanent source of funding for its parks is that the driving force—the zoo—is now just a bit player. Though still publicly funded, Woodland Park is privately managed, and it’s been well taken care of, thanks to parks levies passed in 2000 and 2008. And Gordo? He passed away in 2007 but spent the last four of years of his life prowling his new $4.3 million home. 

This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.