New parks leader makes public trust a priority

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July 4, 2011
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter
On June 1, the commissioners of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board found themselves in a familiar position. They were in a hot debate over a surprise proposal to reforest the city’s North Side following the May 22 tornado that wiped out thousands of trees.

Commissioner Jon Olson, who represents the tornado-stricken area, wanted to send a message to his constituents. He asked the commissioners to support a resolution that would commit the Park Board to planting 2,000 trees in the area before the ground froze this fall.

It wasn’t that any of the commissioners were opposed to sending trees to North Minneapolis, but some said it was irresponsible to make a blind commitment to planting so many trees at a time when repair crews could easily destroy the Park Board’s investment while they put the neighborhood back together.  

In stepped Jayne Miller, who was about five months into her new job as parks superintendent and had thus far said relatively little during the often-contentious Park Board meetings.

“I would hate to see us make an investment financially, put trees in, and those trees don’t stay because they get damaged or they get torn down,” she told the board. “I would suggest that rather than pass the resolution that Commissioner Olson put on the floor, that you direct us as staff to develop a plan to replace the tree canopy in North Minneapolis with a minimum (number of trees).”

In the end, the Board almost unanimously passed a resolution to replace 3,000 trees by next spring, giving repairs crews time to do their work while also sending a message to North Minneapolis.

Miller, 52, is in charge of one of the largest park systems in the country — 182 properties, 6,732 acres of land and water, 49 recreation centers and a $59 million annual budget that will face declining revenues in coming years.

She’s also tasked with reconnecting the Park Board with the community and regaining public trust, which many commissioners and officials say has been missing for the past several years. It was just three years ago that some Minneapolis City Council members wanted to take away the Park Board’s autonomy and make it a city department.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said Miller, with Park Board President John Erwin, is leading the park system in a new direction.  

“In Minneapolis’s complicated system, the parks are independent, but under Jayne’s leadership they are no longer isolated,” he said.

While Miller hadn’t been publicly vocal until the past couple months, she’s spent her first few months behind the scenes trying to build relationships and get a handle on the system.

“When she first arrived Jayne invited many elected folks to her home, the superintendent’s house, and when I mentioned I’d be in the area but didn’t want to leave my dog in the cold car, she invited Sadie to the event as well,” said City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward). “I was quite impressed with her and look forward to a renewed working relationship with the park system staff.”

Miller, an upstate New York native and former Ann Arbor, Mich., parks administrator, said she’s focused on finding partners in the city, school district, neighborhood groups and nonprofit community.

“It was clear to me, given the tumultuousness and the kinds of relationships — which I think had been tarnished or damaged over the last number of years — need to be rebuilt and trust needs to be re-established, and that’s something I’m working hard to do,” she said.

The activist group Park Watch best explains the trust issue. It was formed in 2004 by several concerned citizens who felt that Miller’s predecessor, Jon Gurban, was hired by the Park Board without enough public input. Further, the group felt Gurban was unqualified and didn’t engage the public.

The group still exists and members attend every Park Board meeting, make large data requests and often blast the Park Board on their website, mplsparkwatch.org.

Miller has met with co-founder Arlene Fried and said her goal is to build up enough public trust so that the group can cease to exist.

Fried wouldn’t commit to shutting down Park Watch, but she said she trusts Miller because she’s already made more information open to the public.

“We trust Jayne, but the transition is complex,” Fried said. “It’s not going to happen over night. Park Watch was a transition. We were always a catalyst for change. That change is happening under Jayne now.”

Commissioner Bob Fine, who was a Gurban supporter, said he’s been impressed by Miller during her first several months, but he also said it’s too early to know exactly what kind of superintendent she will be.

Just a few days before Miller took over, interim superintendent David Fisher and the Park Board made cuts to recreation staff.

Fine, a longtime baseball coach, said those cuts may prove to be problematic as recreation staff is being overworked this summer with new demands and responsibilities.

“I don’t know all the repercussions about what’s going to happen,” he said. “But from my end, I think she’s been doing a very good job.”

Rybak said he became aware of Miller’s leadership qualities following the May 22 tornado. Within an hour of the tornado, Miller had called the mayor to begin planning the cleanup.

“I do have to tell you that we have been through some disasters in this city before,” Rybak said. “When we first got the call from the head of the parks, we were a little taken aback because we’re not used to having the park be this big of a player. It was really welcome news and a huge change.”