State Workers

Push on to put parks in governor's hands

The governor should have direct control over state parks, the House said in a vote last week.

Some park users, however, say the agency is doing fine being run by a commission.

Legislators approved House Bill 1192, which would make the director of the State Parks and Recreation Commission an appointee of the governor. Commission members, who are appointees of the governor, hire the director.

"Parks has become a pretty big piece of our budget, it's a pretty big piece of our state, and it has never been under the governor," said Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, who sponsored the bill.

Kessler, who led the charge to eliminate the day-use fees charged at state parks last year, said the agency should be a Cabinet agency, but she is not concerned about the leadership of the agency.

"They have a wonderful group of commissioners, they all care very much about what they are doing. They have a wonderful director, I'm sure," she said. "But when you have an outlier commission like that, there's not a direct connection (to the governor)."

Jim King, of Citizens for Parks and Recreation, is an outspoken critic of Kessler and her proposal.

"There's no possibility that the Senate is going to pass that bill. This is Kessler's vendetta," he said.

He said Kessler, the House majority leader, is upset with the commission over the battle to remove the fees, which were popular in some quarters as a dedicated source of funding for parks.

During a budget crunch in 2002, leases on 13 parks were canceled to save money. The following year the controversial parking fees were started to bring in more cash.

Kessler said the fees hurt park attendance and she successfully pushed to eliminate them.

"I'm trying to be kind here, because there were a lot of problems I went through when I was trying to get the parking fees released, and I was getting numbers that would change," Kessler said last week.

She stressed, however, that her proposal to make the parks director a gubernatorial appointee is intended to improve the agency, not punish anyone.

She also has proposed an optional $5 fee residents could pay along with their vehicle licenses to support state parks.

The agency is neutral on the legislation. It has a two-year budget of $124 million, 500 full-time employees and the same number of seasonal employees.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed adding 18 workers to the parks commission and spending more than $49 million on park repairs and upgrades in over the next two years.

With such support, King says nothing needs to be changed.

"The governor's done great for parks. We're past the parking fee. This other stuff isn't really relevant or even needed," he said. "What we need to be talking about is what we do next, how we fix up some of the things that need it."

For House members who approved Kessler's bill 64-33, the debate over the fee may also be irrelevant to their support of the measure.

Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, said he supported the bill because the public already assumes the governor has control over state parks.

"I think the buck's gotta stop somewhere and it ultimately belongs with the governor," he said. "I think if you asked someone on the street who's in control of the parks system, they would say, 'Why Gov. Christine Gregoire?' "

The Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents parks workers, is neutral on the measure.

"We're following it, obviously, but those kinds of management issues we stay out of. We'll deal with whoever's in charge," said union spokesman Tim Welch.