Fur flies at hearing on second park levy

Accusations of mismanagement and misconduct topped those of poor ball field maintenance, at a public hearing on park district financing Thursday evening.

Tom Hujar, representing a group called Bainbridge Parents for Better Parks, criticized district operations and told park board members there are “many questions left unanswered” after February’s narrow levy failure.

“We believe the public has a right to know why nearly every capital improvement project undertaken by the park district has either ended up in court, or was far less than promised,” Hujar said, reading from a prepared statement.

As examples, Hujar cited the new skate park, which flooded with rainwater shortly after construction, and the failure to build ball fields at Gazzam Lake. He also cited the new swimming pool, which he said was headed toward litigation for unspecified reasons.

“The fact of the matter is, you have a doubting public that wants to know why they should believe you now,” Hujar said.

He also made allegations of “misuse and misappropriation of park property,” and called for an audit of park district affairs, but did not offer any specifics to back up those allegations. (See sidebar, page A3)

The 90-minute hearing was marred by several heated exchanges. Park officials were clearly angered by several of Hujar’s claims, and said no projects, including the new pool, have ended up in court.

They also pointed to the most recent state audit of park district operations, covering 1999-2000 and released in December, which gave the district high marks for financial management and adherence to open meetings laws.

One audience member dismissed Hujar’s claims as “all accusations, with no truth behind them.”

The hearing was the first of two this month, as park board members plan a second try at a maintenance and operations levy for 2003-2004.

A two-year, $4.78 million levy that went before voters Feb. 5 earned better than 58 percent support, but fell short of the needed 60 percent “supermajority.”

The board must decide whether to try the levy again in May, September or November, and whether to raise, lower or leave unchanged the dollar amount.

During the first levy try, the Better Parks organization ran a series of newspaper advertisements urging voters to defeat the measure unless more is spent on maintenance.

Thursday, Hujar accused the park board of using “scare tactics” to rally support during for the levy, saying board members misrepresented when parks might close if levies failed.

To clarify the record, board member Dave Shorett noted that the levy is for 2003-2004, and any closures would not take effect until next year.

“If this doesn’t pass, as of Jan. 1, we’re out of money,” Shorett said.

Board and audience members made several pointed requests that Hujar identify other members of his organization, but he refused.

“I don’t choose to release that at this moment,” he said.

Also at issue Thursday was $400,000 in bond funding left over from the Gazzam Lake purchase, earmarked for ball field construction on that property or elsewhere.

Officials from Bainbridge Island Little League have asked to district to use the funds to upgrade current facilities, while the district’s legal council maintains that the money can only be used to develop new fields.

Thursday, Little League president Steve Smith and vice president Tony Gaspich were on hand with Dan Baskins, who identified himself as a lobbyist for Fred Hill Materials.

They sought to distance themselves from the Better Parks group, and conceded that some improvements have been made over the past six weeks, after meetings with park officials established a new maintenance program.

Still, Gaspich told the board that if conditions changed, he would vote against the levy again.

Baskins, a Poulsbo resident, called for the construction of irrigation systems on some fields, and said the district should form better partnerships with groups like Little League to ensure proper upkeep. He described current conditions as “embarrassing,” and told board members they have been poorly served by the district’s staff.

“I’m the only one who can say that,” Baskins said, “because I don’t live here.”

Board members countered that they have done what they can to improve fields, and cited the recent reconstruction of a Babe Ruth field at Battle Point Park. Much of the problem, they said, comes from the year-round use fields see from baseball, soccer and football.

Several audience members took issue with Little League’s complaints, saying the park district provides an array of programs not tied to youth sports.

“They’re making it sound like that’s all that’s important, the baseball and softball fields,” said John Alder, an aquatic center employee.

A representative of Bainbridge Island Pee Wees challenged Little League officials to publicly offer their support to the levy. The Pee Wee organization supported the February levy, but Smith has said Little League is not a political organization and does not tell members how to vote.

“We all have constituencies,” he said Wednesday. “I am not going to apologize for representing the 1,000 little kids who play baseball and softball.”

While Hujar and ball field advocates said the district should consider running a higher levy, others said that would only put voters off and lead to a second failure.

Chris Llewellyn, former park board member, said it would be “irresponsible in a recession” to try a higher levy. Tom Hemphill urged “fiscal restraint,” and said the board ought to consider lowering the levy amount – already a 40 percent increase over the last two-year levy.

The next hearing will be at 7 p.m. March 28 at the Strawberry Hill Center.

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