Emotions ran high Tuesday night as the Puyallup City Council attempted to tamp down rumors that it plans to gut the parks and recreation department.
Council members said “malicious rumors” and “hysteria” were swirling around Puyallup. One councilman said “vigilantes” were spreading fear about massive parks cuts they assume will be made.
The controversy apparently was triggered last year when City Manager Bill McDonald ordered an in-depth review of the parks department after raising concerns about how it was managed and how much it was costing the city. He fired the director, saying he had no confidence in his ability to lead the department.
A team of city staffers led the review without collecting public input. They collected data that will guide the council’s discussion next month that could lead to decisions affecting the department for 2014.
The review provides some policy guidance but makes no recommendations on any parks or facilities. McDonald said he wanted the report free of outside influence that may distort its conclusions. He said the public still will have an opportunity to comment.
But the internal review on the heels of the director’s firing fed rumors that, in the words of Councilman Steve Vermillion, the city planned to cut programs, close buildings and pave over parks.
“It’s all malicious rumors from people who don’t know what’s going on,” Vermillion said Tuesday night.
Still, a couple of council members said the process was flawed. Councilman Kent Boyle said the city contributed to the rumor-mongering by including an appraisal of the value of the city recreation center in the report.
“What else do you expect people to say?” Boyle asked.
They weren’t the only ones with concerns.
Phil Schumock, a member of the parks advisory board, said before the meeting that board members were not included in the process. He said the review appeared to frame an argument for further parks and recreation cuts.
“They say it’s a first step,” he said. “I think it’s a flawed first step.”
In a letter to the council and city manager, Schumock said: “Open government is your stated goal, yet it seems that only applies to the portion of the public that shares your opinion about things.”
Tuesday’s meeting grew contentious when Brit Kramer, executive director of the nonprofit Washington Recreation and Park Association, stepped forward to testify. She said she’s concerned that Puyallup’s parks department doesn’t have a director and its review was not conducted by an expert. She offered the services of her organization to assist the city.
Her testimony didn’t sit well with Councilman John Knutsen, who earlier described attending a city park advisory board meeting where “vigilantes” were screaming about parks being closed and programs being cut.
“The hysteria is ridiculous,” Knutsen said.
He demanded to know who invited Kramer to the meeting, saying he felt like it was a “setup.” That drew objections from other council members.
Kramer said after the meeting that she decided to reach out to the city after hearing the rumors.
The council will discuss the review at a study session in late March. The document is available online for public review on the city’s website, cityofpuyallup.org.