Public trust, once compromised, is hard to repair. Metro Parks is learning that the hard way.
The uproar over a task force’s report suggesting ways Metro Parks can make more money underscores the need for the parks district to do a better job at public outreach.
No one faults Metro Parks officials for trying to get ahead of a possible future budget deficit by making parks less dependent on taxpayers. Citizens demand such innovative and strategic thinking of their public officials.
But the park district went astray in recruiting 16 business and government leaders last year to brainstorm revenue-generating ideas without giving the public a seat at the table – or even a window on the process.
Community activists, one of Metro Parks bread-and-butter constituencies, were left completely out of the loop. They didn’t get wind of the task force until after it had completed its work in November and submitted a report.
The task force’s recommendations – which conjure a parks district driven by entrepreneurial spirit and the pursuit of commercial business — did little to assuage concerns. Neither did the discovery that one of the ideas already had legs of its own.
In February, news broke that public agencies, Metro Parks among them, were quietly considering the redevelopment of a large swath of land that includes Cheney Stadium, Foss High School, parks headquarters and Heidelberg Park.
Metro Parks officials insist that the idea to turn the Heidelberg complex into an urban village sprang to life independent of the revenue task force’s work. But for wary neighborhood interests, news of the proposal sealed suspicions that park officials were secretly greasing the skids for paving over public parks.
Such a bias toward distrust doesn’t develop overnight. Metro Parks has a propensity for waiting until it has a concrete plan, architect’s renderings and a business model before going public.
The result, intentional or not, is that parks officials end up blindsiding neighborhoods. Community groups have told parks officials time and again: Spare us the pretty package and let us help shape the idea from the ground up.
The unfortunate thing is that controversy about process has overshadowed the substance of the task force’s work. While some of the panel’s recommendations are absolute nonstarters, the report as a whole is a provocative starting point for discussions about how the park district should shore up its long-term financial health.
To be successful, the parks district needs the public on its side. That won’t happen until the Metro Parks administration and board accept that their track record engenders a greater responsibility to involve the community early and often.