University Place public events in jeopardy

Citing state law, city might curtail support for volunteer-run activities

Staff writerMarch 17, 2014 


Galen Chen, left, is all smiles for taking part in the feeding of the cider squeeze machine. Galen's 11-year-old sister, Cindy Chen, is cranking the machine that is chopping the apples for the squeeze. The youngsters from University Place were participating in the Curran Apple Orchard Cider Squeeze in 2003.

LUI KIT WONG — Staff photographer file, 2003 Buy Photo

University Place’s annual fall Cider Squeeze and summer Treasures in the Park events could be in jeopardy because of changes to how the city regulates volunteer-run activities.

And a third event, the annual Homestead Park plant sale in May, will not happen this year, according to the small group of volunteers who run it.

“We don’t have a choice. We can’t front it financially,” said City Councilman Ken Grassi, who also leads the Homestead volunteer group.

The City Council will discuss Monday whether to add the Cider Squeeze and Treasures in the Park, held each June during the Duck Daze festivities, to a list of city-sponsored events. If the council does not include them, organizers say they would be canceled this year.

The changes under consideration would also affect the relationship City Council members have with volunteer groups. Grassi could no longer organize events for the Homestead volunteer group that he’s been a part of since its inception. The group maintains the rhododendron-filled park adjacent to City Hall.

The council discussed the changes at its meeting last week. Near the end, Grassi walked out.

It was the first time in 19 years that the councilman and former mayor says he has left a meeting before adjournment. “I was feeling very frustrated,” Grassi said Friday.

City attorney Steve Victor said the city should make the changes to ensure it’s not opening itself up to liability and to prevent conflicts of interest for public officials. Victor reviewed UP’s various volunteer-run events last year and found areas in which the city wasn’t acting within the law, he said.

Almost all the volunteer groups the city works with are nonprofits and wouldn’t be subject to the changes. But neither the Curran Orchard Resource Enthusiasts, which has the Cider Squeeze, and the Homestead Park group, which has the plant sale and Treasures in the Park, has nonprofit status.

Grassi said his group doesn’t want the bureaucratic hassle of being a nonprofit. Lorna Smith, a Homestead Park volunteer who sat on the City Council for 15 years, said she’s disappointed with the proposed changes.

When the group formed more than 15 years ago, it was told by the city manager that it could deposit donations with the city, which would keep the money in its budget. The orchard group already did that, Smith said, and it made sense to follow the same structure.

But now the groups might no longer be allowed to deposit money with the city.

Smith said she’s left to question why the rules are changing.

“A lot of us put a lot of time into the park, and our own money, and that’s the kind of thanks we get,” she said.

Victor said the city isn’t a “private bank” for these two groups, which is one of the reasons he drafted a resolution clarifying the city’s role.

The resolution fixes three things in practice now, Victor said: It brings events into accordance with state law for how public money is used; it clarifies the roles and responsibilities of council members; and it ensures the city is protected from liability.

The Homestead Park group has close to $40,000 held by the city. The city can’t write a check and give the money back, Victor said. Instead, the group can request the council take action to use the money in the park.

The city can’t use the money to have the plant sale because there’s no guarantee all the money spent buying plants beforehand would be recovered during the event, Victor said. That would be gambling with public money, he said.

This technicality has the group upset. The event is the group’s primary fundraiser and members worry its cancellation this year would hurt it in the future.

“If you drop a year, it’s like starting over,” Grassi said.

If you go

What: The University Place City Council will take up its resolution involving public events.

When: Monday at 6:30 p.m.

Where: City Hall, 3715 Bridgeport Way W.

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