Park Board votes to open search for next superintendent

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February 1, 2010 // UPDATED 9:05 am - February 4, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes

President says Superintendent Jon Gurban has done great work but that moving on 'happens as the natural growth of an organization'

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is set to move beyond Superintendent Jon Gurban, voting 6–3 Wednesday night to begin a search for candidates.

It’s the will of Minneapolis’ residents, said a majority of the board that included all three new commissioners. The campaign trail sealed Southwest’s Brad Bourn and Anita Tabb’s decision, they said, while Northeast’s Liz Wielinski said people brought up the issue repeatedly last fall.

But three of the board’s longest-serving commissioners fought back, stringing along a discussion that dominated the night’s meeting. Commissioner Bob Fine, elected citywide after two terms representing Southwest, said he knocked on possibly the most doors of any candidate and that citizens didn’t ask him for any change. Instead, he said, they told him they were happy with the parks system that exists.

Like Fine, Commissioner Jon Olson said he didn’t think he was reelected because of any issues related to Gurban. He openly supported the superintendent while campaigning, Olson said, and yet he still was voted into a new term.

“I think we’re making a terrible mistake tonight,” he said.

Olson described Gurban as weathering a lot of criticism in his six years with the board. It goes back to his initial appointment, which came after a 2003 candidate search imploded. He was chosen to serve a temporary term despite not having applied for nor originally screening for the job. (That was a controversial move. At the time, current board President John Erwin, then serving his first term, called the move “outrageous” and “unprofessional.”) Although a candidate search in 2004 ultimately led to Gurban’s permanent hiring, even then, he was hired by a board known for its infighting by a 6–3 vote. (Erwin did vote in the majority that year.)

Yet Gurban has since watched over a number of successes, including the development of the board’s Comprehensive Plan and the completion of long-stalled ideas to fill the last gap in the city’s Grand Rounds Scenic Byway System. A 2008 evaluation of his job performance showed a majority of the last Park Board found he met or exceeded expectations, while a 2009 independent survey of Minneapolis residents said 96 percent had a favorable opinion of the city’s parks. Almost 50 percent said they disliked nothing about it.

But Gurban has taken knocks on issues such as transparency and communication concerns, and his interactions with both the public and the board, in particular, have been scrutinized over the years. Watchdogs have complained about access to public documents during his tenure and about major action items sometimes appearing on agendas without following standard processes.

On Wednesday, Erwin voted to approve a search. Gurban has done great work, he said, but “there are new needs.”

“It happens,” Erwin said. “It just happens as the natural growth of an organization.”

Six to eight years from now, another board could be making the same decision, he said.

How long it’ll take to find a new superintendent will depend on which search firm is chosen. Past searches have taken about a year.

One issue remains unsolved: what happens in July. Gurban’s contract currently ends in June, and the board hasn’t decided what to do beyond that. Commissioners are opting to wait until after a search firm is chosen.