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Thursday, October 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chief's job lands in the middle of tug of war over parks

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle charter amendment


Voters on Nov. 7 will be asked to make 11 changes to the city charter. Most are technical, with no citizen support or opposition.

Charter Amendment 8 is strongly backed by critics of Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds. It would require the Seattle City Council to reconfirm — or fire — the heads of the Parks, Personnel and Finance departments every four years. The heads of these three departments would be subject to review in February 2011.

Ten department chiefs already are subject to such review. In preparing the ballot measure, the council voted to exempt the police and fire chiefs from a reconfirmation process.

He's been called a goose-killing, tree-cutting, artificial-grass-loving autocrat.

And Nov. 7, the Seattle City Council will ask voters for the power to fire him.

Why are people so mad at Ken Bounds, the longtime head of the city's nationally renowned parks system?

"He's been nice to me, but something about him rubs people the wrong way," says Jim Anderson, a neighborhood activist who has battled the parks department over artificial-turf ballfields in Loyal Heights.

The problem may not be Bounds, although his way of dealing with the public's advice has irritated neighborhood activists. As in many cities, the Seattle parks department is at the center of emerging conflict between birdwatchers and ballplayers, between those who want parks for quiet contemplation and those who want lively activities.

"The soccer light is going to shine in somebody's eye, somebody's going to step in dog poop and somebody's goose is going to get gassed — and that's just before lunch. I wouldn't take Ken's job if they paid me a million bucks," says Walt Crowley of historylink.org, a local online encyclopedia.

A tall, laconic Texan, Bounds says he has developed a thick skin during his 10 years as parks superintendent.

He's had to. He's had protesters — including a guy in a bird suit — marching outside his house, and comparing him to Hitler because of his department's onetime policy of rounding up and gassing Canada geese that were fouling city parks.

Bounds says he doesn't think it's a good idea for the parks job to be in the hands of both the mayor and council. "There aren't many management books I know of that think having 10 bosses produces accountability."

The longest-serving department head in City Hall, Bounds has worked for three mayors. A self-described McGovern Democrat, he sees parks as the most democratic of institutions.

"I grew up in the segregated South, and the parks-and-recreation system was my avenue to befriending people of other races," says Bounds, 56.

That's not to say Bounds thinks parks should be used mainly for play. "Taking an inner-city kid to Schmitz Park to see a 500-year-old cedar or hemlock tree is important."

In 30 years at City Hall, Bounds has climbed from planner to budget director to manager of 400 parks, 974 employees, 26 community centers, 10 pools, four golf courses — even an aquarium. He's also overseen the largest parks levy — $198 million — in city history.

Bounds is a leader nationally among big-city parks directors, says John Thorner, director of the National Recreation and Park Association, which is holding its annual conference in Seattle this week. "Frankly, he's a lot smarter than a lot of park directors," Thorner says. "A lot of times it's a political payback job."

Bounds' current problems stem mainly from four North Seattle neighborhoods that want less activity in their parks than city leaders propose.

At Magnuson Park and Loyal Heights Playfield, neighbors object to plans for lighted ballfields. At Woodland Park Zoo, neighbors are mad about several planned buildings, including a 700-stall garage. At Gas Works Park, activists fought — and scuttled — a proposed concert series.

Even though key decisions at all four parks were approved by Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council, some neighbors blame Bounds.

That's politics, says Kate Pflaumer, chairwoman of the parks board, appointed by the mayor. "People are upset and their only hope is to get council to change [its decisions]. So they don't want to blame the council," Pflaumer says.

Council members say they should hold Bounds more accountable.

The Nov. 7 ballot question asks voters to change the city's charter to allow the council to periodically review Bounds' performance and fire him if it chooses. Now, only the mayor can fire him.

Council President Nick Licata says he doesn't think the council would fire Bounds, but he faults Bounds for a lack of communication. "He doesn't volunteer a lot unless you ask the right questions," Licata says.

Licata admits, though, that the council is seeking to hold Bounds accountable for some of its own actions. "We can be very fickle. We'll give someone marching orders and complain that they marched. That's a legitimate complaint. But you also expect someone to get back in touch with you and let you know what's going on."

Council members say they're not targeting Bounds. Instead, they say, they are trying for consistency in the city charter, which now requires most but not all department heads to come under council review. But in deciding on the ballot measure, which would take effect in 2011, the council refrained from putting the police and fire chiefs under such control, saying those jobs shouldn't be politicized.

Some say the council is really taking a jab at Nickels. David Della, who leads the council's parks committee, says the ballot measure would put the council on more even footing with the mayor.

But Della also says the council needs to require more from Bounds.

"I don't think the critics will ever go away, but at least we can say we responded and are accountable in the way we do business," he says.

Neighborhood activists say Bounds has made a sham of the city's vaunted public process by not seeking enough input or failing to act on it when he does.

But it appears city policies — not process — are the underlying problem.

At the zoo, critics charge that Bounds pulled a sneaky switch — moving a proposed underground garage to above ground and relocating it to the park's west side.

Never mind that it wasn't Bounds' decision, but Nickels'; he argued the change would save $12 million.

The new garage plan wasn't a surprise, either. City officials held two public hearings on the proposal, activists distributed flyers against the garage, and opponents testified at a hearing a month before the council unanimously approved the plan.

In the Gas Works controversy, activists griped that city officials, including Bounds, decided to hold the Summer Nights concert series at the park but waited until three days before Christmas to announce the plan in an attempt to blunt neighborhood criticism.

The most ardent concert critics, those who filed a lawsuit that ended up killing the concert plan, insist that concerts should never be held at Gas Works — regardless of the process.

Such conflicts are common around the country, says Thorner, whose association is bringing 10,000 parks-and-recreation professionals to Seattle this week. "Parks directors, in general, walk a tightrope," he adds.

Bounds admits to some mistakes. He says the Gas Works process was flawed because the city and One Reel, the non-profit concert promoter, were still negotiating over a site in mid-December. "I didn't have the time and I'm really sorry," he says.

Bounds, who earns $140,000 a year, says he'll be surprised if he's still running parks when the council's ballot measure would take effect in 2011. But he'd step down before then, he says, if he thought his presence was harmful to parks. "If I can't be effective then it's better for somebody else to be here."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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