The newly sworn-in Park Board commissioners voted Jan. 2 to make Liz Wielinski (District 1) president and Scott Vreeland (District 3) vice-president.
Wielinski, formerly the vice-president, was unanimously elected after former President John Erwin (at-large) decided not to run for a fifth consecutive one-year term.
“This was a job I loved, but I look forward to dating again, and having of a life,” Erwin said, who also works as a horticulture professor at the University of Minnesota.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Erwin was praised for repairing relationships with the mayor’s office, City Council and Hennepin County that had deteriorated under the controversial tenure of former Park Board Supt. Jon Gurban, who was replaced in 2010.
As president, colleagues described Erwin as a tireless consensus builder full of ambitious ideas. His easygoing, optimistic demeanor as the leader of the nine-person board will be replaced by Wielinski’s more skeptical, pragmatic style.
“Whereas John has spent myriad hours concocting fabulous plans for the future of the Park Board only to have them crushed cruelly by his vice-president, superintendent and other members of the board,” said Wielinksi, reading from a resolution passed honoring his time as Park Board president at the swearing-in ceremony.
“All the time!” replied Erwin, mock-exasperated.
The transition from Erwin to Wielinski symbolically puts an end to an era where the Park Board sought to repair its reputation after being heavily criticized during the mid-to-late 2000s for a lack of transparency and fiscal accountability. One of the most vocal critics of the Park Board during those years was Wielinski.
She first became involved with the Park Board about 10 years ago, when a plan to close the wading pool at Hi-View Park near her home in Northeast was made public as part of a round of budget cuts.
“My son was 3 at the time; we spent our whole summer down there. I was like ‘that’s my wading pool, they can’t close that down!’” said Wielinski.
She and another neighbor made a huge banner that read “Save Our Pool” and put it up at Hi-View. On another banner they wrote “Commissioner Walt Dziedzic,” who represented Northeast on the Park Board, with his phone number underneath.
“We could see people driving by literally stop and write down the number to call him,” said Wielinski. Later she attended to a Park Board meeting and gave a presentation in an attempt to spare the wading pool.
The effort paid off. The pool was spared and it remains open to this day.
Shortly after that in 2004, Wielinski and several other citizens deeply concerned over how the Park Board was being run founded Minneapolis Park Watch.
“The process [around selecting Gurban as superintendent in 2003] was absolutely horrid. We started talking about it and calling around until we all got connected, which is when Park Watch started,” Wielinski said.
The neighborhood activist group hounded the Park Board to become more transparent, through both exhaustive data and information requests and scathing blog posts. Current District 4 Commissioner Anita Tabb joined the group in 2007.
When Minneapolis Park Watch-endorsed candidates lost in the 2005 election, Tabb and Wielinski decided to run in 2009. They both won and were subsequently reelected to another term in November.
Now President Wielinski is charged with asserting the semi-autonomous Park Board more forcefully into the city’s power structure. Minneapolis is pushing to increase its population, and its natural beauty and massive parks system is a major selling point in attracting the young professionals and families it covets.
“We have a large backlog of projects we need to get to, and I’m sure the new president will be a very strong advocate in getting some of those done,” Erwin said.