Park and Wreck

This election season, the dysfunctional Minneapolis Park Board is ripe for reform

It is the largest landowner in Minneapolis, with more than 170 properties comprising nearly 6,400 acres of land. It has been around for more than a century, employs more than 2,000 people, and currently has an annual budget just shy of $50 million. It is the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the facilities it operates are second only to the Mall of America as a destination for tourists in the metro area.

Despite these impressive credentials, the park board has traditionally kept a relatively low political profile throughout its long history. In the past few years, however, a series of embarrassing incidents and controversies has contributed to the impression that the MPRB has been operating like a private club, rife with cronyism and a lack of public accountability. More than that, there have been controversial expenditures by the board over the years, and an unseemly rift on the board itself. Now, on the verge of an election in which all nine seats--six district positions, and three at-large--on the park board commission are up for grabs, this typically sleepy corner of city government has become a highly scrutinized hotbed of political activity.

The defining event of the recent park board power struggle, one that birthed a cadre of reform-minded board critics, happened in December 2003, when the board hired its current superintendent, Jon Gurban. Not only hadn't Gurban participated in the interview and screening process, but his candidacy was unknown to the public--and four of the nine commissioners--until just hours before the meeting to elect him. At the time, he was executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association, a state entity, and a former high school classmate of then-park board president Bob Fine.

In short, the park board has been a poster child for unchecked government. The uproar over Gurban's hiring motivated a group of citizens to form Minneapolis Park Watch, which set up a website and began issuing detailed minutes and critiques of subsequent park board meetings. Among many complaints, Park Watch members charged that the minutes of board meetings were too vague, and that public feedback was discouraged because of scant prior notice of meeting topics and too little time set aside by the board to hear citizen concerns.

"That still happens," says Annie Young, one of a four-member minority currently on the board who sides with the reformers. "Last week, we had 11 people scheduled to speak and they were told they would each get 90 seconds!"

Discouragement of public discourse reached absurd heights in June, when Gurban called the cops on Jason Stone, a frequent Gurban critic and current park board commissioner candidate. Stone's offense? He was passing out campaign literature without a permit. The 14-year-old permit policy had been previously ignored (and thus violated) by hundreds of candidates, including many park board members. It had been rarely--if ever--enforced because of the unlikelihood that it would withstand a free speech challenge in the courts. A few weeks later, after an embarrassing board meeting, Gurban suspended the policy on the advice of the board's legal counsel.

To many increasingly vocal critics, the snafu was just another shining example of how arrogant, dysfunctional, and out-of-touch the board has really become.

 

Ironically, Stone's race against board incumbent Carol Kummer in District Five is regarded by many observers as pivotal in the drive by reformers to overturn the current 5-4 park board majority. Stone has been endorsed by both Park Watch and the Minneapolis Citizens for Park Board Reform, a group that is raising money for a slate of reform candidates. MCPBR founder Michael Guest says the candidates were endorsed according to their fidelity to three core principles: fiscal accountability, openness and transparency, and environmental stewardship.

He claims that in addition to the Gurban hiring, which smacked of cronyism, reformers are concerned about the relationship between the board and its lawyer/lobbyist Brian Rice. Rice has received hundreds of thousands of dollars for his services (including more than $400,000 in 2001 alone) and has been among the largest campaign contributors to a number of board incumbents. Guest further cites cost overruns of millions of dollars on the new park board headquarters and the Neiman field complex near the airport as evidence of poor management by the board.

Another concern of reformers is that the current administration will lease away or otherwise commercialize valuable park assets. Recent years have seen spirited, as yet unsuccessful attempts to open Dairy Queen franchises on park property near local lakes, allow Crown Hydro to construct a power plant on park board property, and lease the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis. The board recently green-lighted the construction of a football field on Nicollet Island for use by a private school.

Board sentiments on these issues are neither clear-cut nor monolithic. Young, for example, voted to purchase the new park headquarters space, yet is still endorsed by both reform groups, Park Watch and MCPBR. But with the reformers allied on their voting preferences, yet another group, this one known as People for Independent Parks (PIP), was formed in September to counteract what they claim has been a nasty reform campaign.

Although PIP now includes dozens of names, including many public officials, its original organizers were current Fourth Ward Minneapolis City Council member Barb Johnson and former Northwest Airlines lobbyist and Sharon Sayles Belton aide Julie Idelkope. "It is a reaction to a lot of bad information folks have put out there," Johnson says, referring to the reformers. She adds that talk of huge cost overruns on the headquarters and a rumored slush fund for the superintendent "are absolutely untrue. To suggest that the park system is all screwed up is nonsense."

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