Jon Gurban forced out as Minneapolis park board's controversial superintendent

After six stormy years, Gurban is given the boot

When the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted last month not to rehire its top employee, park superintendent Jon Gurban, it marked the beginning of the end for one of the city's most controversial public officials. For six years, Gurban has kept the park board in near-constant tumult, drawing fire from critics for an inexplicable inability to work with the public and a hair-trigger temper that has made him the first target of anyone hoping to see change in the park board.

Last month, the department's elected commissioners said they had had enough. They voted 6-3 to begin the search for a new superintendent—a move that one of Gurban's board allies angrily called a "sham."

That contentious meeting was a fitting coda to the tenure of a superintendent who has stirred controversy from the minute he was hired.

Rick Sealock
"He is the CEO of the park system, and if he hasn't developed emotional maturity to handle public discourse, that's a problem," says a former commissioner candidate of Jon Gurban.
courtesy of MPRB
"He is the CEO of the park system, and if he hasn't developed emotional maturity to handle public discourse, that's a problem," says a former commissioner candidate of Jon Gurban.

The story of how Jon Gurban became superintendent has now become an infamous part of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lore. It began in December 2003 in a meeting so bizarre that it concluded with shouted obscenities and several board members stalking out of the room.

Gurban's hiring came at a time when the park board found itself in a serious bind. With just two weeks left to find a new superintendent, the commissioners were nearly back to square one. Their current superintendent was retiring, and, after a lengthy search process, the two chosen finalists for the job had suddenly dropped out.

The nine-member board met a week before Christmas to plot its next move. Board President Bob Fine told the commissioners that he had contacted the five other semifinalists, and four said they would be interested in being reconsidered.

The board debated going back to the previous candidates or starting the search again, but some commissioners had another plan.

In a surprise move, Commissioner Walt Dziedzic suddenly tossed a new name into the mix: He made a motion to elect Jon Gurban as acting superintendent of the park board. Immediately the meeting descended into chaos.

Gurban was executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association trade group for parks professionals. He had not applied for the job, and his name had not been floated at past meetings about the position. His shining qualifications: He was a high school friend of Fine's and had some experience in park systems.

The boardroom erupted. Commissioner John Erwin said he didn't even know who Gurban was or if he was qualified, and he thought the motion was inappropriate. Staff members started passing out Gurban's résumé, which some commissioners said they had never seen before.

The board had a very streamlined search process that should be followed, Erwin said. If the board installed Gurban, even as interim superintendent, he imagined a flood of public outrage.

Commissioners Vivian Mason and Annie Young adamantly sided with Erwin. Young opposed the motion because Gurban had not gone through the required management tests, background checks, or evaluations.

As a concession, Commissioner Carol Kummer offered an amendment to the motion, which would give Gurban a one-year contract after he went through all the necessary evaluations.

Young wasn't giving in. This was one of the top park jobs in the country, and the board had many eligible candidates. Mason backed her up, saying the hiring of Gurban would be disrespectful to the qualified candidates and would be a national embarrassment.

Despite the intense opposition, Fine brought the motion to a board-wide vote, which passed with a 5-4 majority. Then came the obscenities and walk outs.

Just that quickly, the 54-year-old Gurban, who wasn't even at the meeting, was awarded a $112,000 salary to run 182 park properties, 49 recreation centers, and 6,400 acres of land and water in Minneapolis. And unlike other cities where superintendents report to the mayor, Gurban answered only to the park board. He was now one of the most powerful park superintendents in the country.

   

GURBAN TOOK a job with a park board already known for its heated meetings and fierce arguments. In fact, some board members claim that their colleagues' outbursts and comments during the superintendent search led the two final candidates to drop out to avoid the unstable work environment.

Overseeing parks may seem like a serene job, but the board often faces angry and passionate residents upset about potential changes to the public spaces in their neighborhoods. Park board observers say the main problems arise due to the staff-driven nature of the board, which can leave commissioners without the information they need to knowledgably vote for projects or relay information to residents.

The nine-member board is independently elected every four years and serves as a semi-autonomous body responsible for the Minneapolis park system properties. One member represents each of the six park districts, and three serve at large. As superintendent, Gurban answers to the board but has a lot of freedom on the day-to-day work of the parks that doesn't need to be approved by the full board.

To many park board activists, Gurban's hiring seemed typical of the board's disregard of the public and smelled like a premeditated coup. Commissioners who opposed the move pointed fingers at the majority, claiming they had violated open-meeting laws by conspiring to hire Gurban as interim superintendent and meeting with him in private without informing the rest of the board about the proposed action. Gurban admitted at the time that he spoke to most of the majority before the vote and met with several of them in person.

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