Citywide Park Board races: who guards the green jewels?

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October 17, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Candidates for at-large seats make their case

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioners hold what are essentially part-time jobs overseeing some of the city’s most cherished assets.

Unlike City Councilmembers, Park Commissioners have no personal staff to help with constituent calls. They get paid $10,200 a year ($11,400 for the board president). Several Park Board members hold full-time jobs; others are retired.

All nine seats — three elected citywide, six elected in districts — are up for election Nov. 8. They will chart the park system’s course for the next four years.

This issue profiles the six candidates running citywide. The next issue will profile Park District 4, which includes most of Downtown.

The Park Board has responsibility for things that make Minneapolis livable: The Chain of Lakes, the riverfront, the Sculpture Garden, the Rose Garden, Loring Park’s dandelion fountain, Minnehaha Creek — and miles and miles of walking and biking paths that wind through and around them.

The system has 900-plus employees, spends $70 million a year, and runs a network of neighborhood parks that offer kids and adults alike the opportunity to play sports and enjoy other activities.

Like other local units of government, the Park Board has seen its share of state aid cuts during the past four years. It has increased efforts to partner with private businesses to boost its revenue — with some attempts proving more successful than others. The Tin Fish restaurant at Lake Calhoun has done well. The Fort, a failed skateboard park, drew the Park Board into a lawsuit.

Over the past few years, the Park Board:

- Has seen Dutch elm disease skyrocket; with trees dying faster than the Park Board had money to remove stumps to make way for new trees.

- Bought a new riverfront headquarters building. Critics said it shouldn’t have bought property in lean budget times with park upkeep and programs begging. Supporters said the move acquired an asset and would save money in the long term.

- Worked to stabilize the Lake of the Isles shoreline, fill slumping ground and improve the walking paths. Work now is stalled for lack of state money.

Perhaps most significantly, the Park Board has seen its share of internal friction and ill will.

Park Board President Jon Olson said he believes the issues stem from personality differences, but overall things have gotten better. John Erwin, labeled the swing voter, is the Board’s vice president.

“This whole majority/minority thing bothers me. I don’t think that’s true. Most of our votes are 7-2, 8-1 9-0,” Olson said. “I think it is really unfortunate that people are trying to make so much out of that.”

Others say the problems go deeper than personalities, and fault Park Board leaders for poor process. They say the Board leadership has left them — and the community — out of the loop on key decisions.

The defining moment of last term came when a slim 5-4 majority voted to hire Supt. Jon Gurban in 2003 — even though he did not apply for the position — after its top candidates withdrew.

Erwin, who is not running for reelection, said at the time that the decision to hire Gurban in 2003 was “outrageous” and an “abuse of power” that did the Park Board “great harm.”

Erwin said the three at-large Commissioners (he, Annie Young and Rochelle Berry Graves) have been trying to take the Board in a different direction for years — with more openness, long-term planning and more collaboration with city government.

The Gurban hiring triggered a citizen reaction. An ad hoc group called Park Watch sprung up, launching its own Web site with Park Board updates. The separate Minneapolis Citizens for Park Board Reform began raising money for candidates who would challenge Park Board leadership and push for “openness, fiscal accountability [and] environmental stewardship,” its Web site said. (Supporters range from Minneapolis DFL State Sen. Scott Dibble to Republican lobbyist/publisher Sarah Janecek.)

On Sept. 30, a group of civic leaders headed by City Councilmember Barb Johnson (4th Ward) and Julie Idelkoope launched People for Independent Parks, criticizing reform groups and calling them “a small vocal group of people: who are “trying to hijack the Park Board.”

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine said the Park Reform groups have been too negative and are off base in their criticism. The proof is in people’s park experience, he said. “I rarely find a person, that doesn’t say, ‘Hey, the parks are great. You are doing a great job. We know there are fiscal problems. We don’t see it.’” Fine said.

In the past year, several issues have resurfaced complaints about the Park Board’s public process, from the proposed joint-use athletic field with DeLaSalle on Nicollet Island to the Lake Calhoun Sailing Village. In response to public pressure, the Park Board accelerated creation of a Citizens Advisory Committee on the DeLaSalle field and created a broader review of Lake Calhoun to include the Sailing Village plan.

Each at-large candidate was asked to name one recent accomplishment that would exemplify the skills they would bring to the Board, to give one key goal they would like to achieve in the next term, and to comment on what they would change, if anything, to improve citizen involvement.

Young: longest-serving member thinks Green

Annie Young, a nonprofit consultant, is the only Green Party-endorsed candidate in the race; first elected as a DFLer in 1989, she is the Park Board’s longest-serving Commissioner.

Young came in first in the primary. She credits her accessibility and name recognition. She is known for showing up at neighborhood and park events citywide.

Young has been at odds with park leaders and wants to change such leadership.

Asked about her biggest accomplishment during the past term, Young’s voice cracked. “This has been pretty difficult because, in the minority camp, we have been pretty much shut off from getting any action done,” she said.

Young said she is proud that the Park Board finally opened its first three skateboard parks, at Armatage, Elliot Park and Creekview parks But the things she most values are intangibles.

“It is not about how many notches I have on my belt,” Young said. “Representing the citizens doesn’t necessarily mean that you go around building things and having multi-million dollar projects. It means much more about equity and fairness and is everybody represented.”

Her top goal for next term? “I would love us to have respect and the ability to all work together on the Board and to enjoy our jobs,” she said.

Young expressed frustration, noting that since March she has been asking park leaders for a staff work group, called a “Go Team,” to focus on Green issues, everything from recycling improvements to solar-powered park lighting. Those efforts have stalled.

Park Board President Jon Olson noted the Board made Young chair of the Operations and Environment Committee. The Park Board has gone through significant retirements and staff reorganization, and when the dust settled, staff could work on Green initiatives, he said.

Young said she accepted Olson’s explanation on the Green teams, and acknowledged some improvement since January, including her appointment as committee chair. Still, she had deep concerns about Park Board openness since the 11th-hour decision to hire Supt. Jon Gurban in 2003.

Her donor list includes several Nicollet Island residents, such as Barry Clegg, who are opposed to the proposed joint-use Park Board/DeLaSalle athletic field. The group has complained about the Park Board’s citizen involvement process.

Graves: girls’ champion, Gurban critic

Rochelle Berry Graves, a Hennepin County probation and parole officer, was first elected to an at-large seat in 1993 and is seeking her fourth term.

Asked how her parole work influences her Board role, she said she wanted park programs, “to enhance parents’ abilities to make strong citizens out of their children.”

She counts improvements in youth sports among her top achievements, including having a commissioner’s golf tournment from 2002 to 2004 to raise funds.

Her top goal for her next term would be to strengthen the “Courageous Girls” program, she said.

“For me, there is a crisis. I think we need to do everything we can to strengthen our girls,” she said. “I am thinking of these young girls who are out here having sex and having children. We can’t have kids having babies, thinking welfare is going to take care of it.”

Rose Escanan, Youth Line program administrator, said the program used to send girls out to schools, churches and other locations that request speakers to talk about guns, drugs and gang violence. The girls got public speaking training through Toastmasters and had team-building and self-esteem retreats and ongoing discussions about current events.

The program has not operated for two years, due to staff turnover and reorganization, she said. At its peak, Courageous Girls had 12-15 participants citywide, recruited through 18 inner-city parks.

Asked about the program’s pregnancy-reduction role, Graves said it needed to “change and expand to include self-image and leadership development.”

Graves has been in the minority on key votes, such as hiring Supt. Jon Gurban. She said park leadership could do a better job sharing information — and have fewer “power plays.”

Graves repeated several rumors she had heard on the campaign trail, including plans to have Lakewood Cemetery rent the Theodore Wirth in Lyndale Farmstead Park. As one indication of communications breakdown on the Board, Graves said she had not asked park leadership for answers about the rumors, saying she did not think she would get the truth.

Park Board President Jon Olson said he had no problems with staff, and Berry Graves had given Gurban the cold shoulder.

Gurban “is the superintendent,” Olson said. “Whether you like him or not, it is important to talk to him and work with him.”

Graves denied being offputting, but would not elaborate or say if she was speaking to Gurban.

Gurban said there is no deal in the works on Lakewood Cemetery. (Ron Gjerde, Lakewood’s president, said he had a brief tour of the former superintendent’s residence in July 2004, but nothing came of it.)

Berry Graves came in fourth in the eight-way primary; a similar finish would cost her the Commissioner’s seat. She is running without the DFL backing she had in the past, but Park Board reform groups are backing her.

Asked about taking money from field opponents ahead of a key vote, Young said she had long had a position of protecting the environment and had known many Island residents for years.

Forney: negotiator with a plan

Realtor Meg Forney is making her second run at the Park Board. She is the one with the offbeat ads, including her jogging. The ads are meant to convey that she has a positive spirit and enjoys life, she said.

Her real estate experience is good background for the Park Board because she is used to negotiating, Forney said. She has had to work with a lot of difficult people and has to work to get beyond personalities. “I don’t make money unless I can bring a buyer and seller together,” she said.

Forney has chaired or worked on many park advisory committees, but points to her work chairing the Committee on Urban Environment (CUE) Awards as the single recent accomplishment that reflects the work she could do for the Park Board.

The CUE Awards acknowledge anything that celebrates the urban environment, from the Lake Harriet elf to the IDS Center’s signature design, she said.

“It is one of those committees that really accomplishes something,” she said, calling it a “feel good” but productive event.

Her top priority if elected is to work to establish an endowment fund, through foundation grants or by encouraging residents to make legacy gifts to the Park Board in their wills.

“We can’t just rely on government funds,” Forney said. “We can’t rely on local government aid. We can’t rely on NRP funds. We need to have solid footing of continuous funding, and an endowment, to me, is a natural.”

Forney said she could not explain the Board rift but said it was apparent. “Let’s get rid of all the incumbents to reestablish a sense of trust,” she said. “We could all benefit from a fresh start.”

Her solution? Getting the Park Board together for a retreat at the beginning of each year — something where people can find common ground.

Forney said the Park Board initially mishandled public engagement on the proposed Lake Calhoun Sailing Village but did the right thing by approving a more comprehensive review of Lake Calhoun’s uses.

She wanted to take a page from departing Commissioner John Erwin’s playbook, she said. Erwin sat down with each Commissioner and asked “What is one thing I could work on with you that is a priority of yours?” She would do the same.

(Erwin said he endorses two at-large candidates, Tom Nordyke and Annie Young.)

Forney advocated a new comprehensive plan, noting it had been discussed for years but is only now moving ahead. The last major park plan was released in the mid-’60s and led to the creation of neighborhood parks. The slow place of an update made her question whether there was sincere interest in doing it and a clear process for getting it done.

Forney came in fifth in the eight-way primary, showing strength in the Chain of Lakes area in Southwest Minneapolis.

She ran in 2001, also coming in fifth — but only 2,522 votes, or 2.3 percentage points away from the third place and a Commissioner’s seat.

Froehlich: a coach and conciliator

Dan Froehlich, attorney for the Air Line Pilots Association, said his professional experience as a negotiator and mediator would serve him well on the Park Board.

He points to his role in resolving a contentious labor dispute between charter operator Ryan International and its pilots as a skill he would bring to the Park Board.

“They didn’t have many good feelings towards each other,” Froehlich said. “We were able to avoid going forward with a lawsuit and worked out a deal everyone could live with.”

If elected, his top priority would be to help the Board function better. “It is a shame, when the bitterness gets to the level that it is at,” he said. “I really would like to add a voice and the skills to go beyond that.”

He said the two most frequent comments he gets while campaigning concern the Board’s 5-4 decision in 2003 to hire Jon Gurban as superintendent, even though Gurban had not applied for the position, and the controversy over the proposed Park Board/DeLaSalle athletic field on Nicollet Island.

Froehlich defended Gurban, but acknowledged the Board had lost trust and esteem because of how it handled that vote. “There was a real problem with transparency,” he said.

Froehlich said Gurban had held a top job in the Vancouver park system, was devoted to parks and recreation, and has a lot of past credentials. The Board rehired Gurban in 2004 to a three-year contract on a 6-3 vote, “after he demonstrated his acumen,” Froehlich said. “On that Board, as I understand it, a 6-3 vote is resounding.”

(Critics have said Gurban lacked the appropriate advanced degrees and came from a job managing just five people and a six-figure budget.)

Froehlich said the Board should hold more public hearings on controversial issues. He seeks suggestions about improving the process.

He believes the Board was right to create a Citizens Advisory Committee for the DeLaSalle project but should have done it sooner — before “people threw a lot of punches.”

Froehlich, who has coached many Southwest park teams, also has a disabled son and is vice president of the ARC Hennepin Carver Board. On the Park Board, he said he would promote better programming and access for people of differing abilities.

Several unions support Froehlich, but not the park reform groups, who suggest he is tied to the current majority, including Commissioner Bob Fine, a Froehlich supporter.

Froehlich said like any first-time candidate, he is trying to meet as many people as he can and be friendly and open to all comers. “I am not aligned with anyone,” he said. “I am my own person.”

Froehlich came in sixth in the eight-way primary, the last to make the cut.

Nordyke: nonprofit, arts experience

Tom Nordyke, a consultant on nonprofit real estate projects, is running for the Park Board touting his experience in finance, budgeting and involving people in decision-making.

He points to his work on The Tannery, a Santa Cruz, Calif. polluted site being converted to an arts center with affordable housing and studio space, as an example of the skills he would bring to the Board.

Ceil Cirillo, executive director of the Santa Cruz Redevelopment Authority, said Nordyke was the project manager during the $45 million project’s early development and prepared the budgets and got the project its nonprofit status. He also worked with the Santa Cruz Ballet, the Cultural Council and other arts organization to shape the vision for the space.

If elected, he said, his top priority would be to improve Park Board community engagement and planning. “In the past four years, I don’t think you have seen any serious effort to include community organizations and community groups in the Board decision-making at all,” he said.

He gave the Park Board credit for creating a Citizens Advisory Committee for the DeLaSalle project. He said people he talks to are also confused about the proposed Calhoun Sailing Village. “It runs the gamut from being an elitist yacht club to it being a multilevel entertainment center,” he said.

(The Board recently voted to take a comprehensive look at Lake Calhoun, which would include the sailing proposal to relocate to the south shore.)

Nordyke said that the Park Board needs a well-defined process to review proposed projects. “It is not a process they should reinvent every time they do it, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to people,” he said.

The current Board’s dysfunction is “palpable,” he said. He began his campaign by meeting with current Board members. “Hardly anyone talked about the issues,” he said, but about Board tensions.

Nordyke previously worked for nonprofit developer Artspace. He has served on the Minneapolis Arts Commission and on the board of Intermedia Arts. While he is not an artist himself, he said he had developed contacts in the arts and philanthropic community and would like to explore ways to build partnerships and do more arts programming in the parks.

A first-time candidate, he has DFL backing, support from park reform groups and from outgoing Commissioner John Erwin. He came in third in the primary; a similar Nov. 8 finish would land him on the Board.

Anderson: from staff to Board?

Mary Merrill Anderson is a first-time candidate but has more park experience than any incumbent. She worked 30 years for the park system, starting as the Powderhorn Park recreation center director and rising to superintendent (1999-2003).

That experience gives her credentials, and some baggage, the backsplash from Park Board infighting.

Anderson counts among her most significant recent achievements developing North Mississippi Regional Park’s Carl Kroening Interpretive Center, the system’s first environmental learning center. She said it reflects her ability to listen to residents and build partnerships, in this case with Three Rivers (Hennepin County) Park District that collaborates on the programming.

During a November 2000 Journal interview, then-Supt. Anderson said the park system needed a new master plan to address changing park demands, such as the needs of new immigrants and people with disabilities. (The last master plan, the 1965 Brightbill study, charted the course for the current system of neighborhood parks.)

The new master plan did not get traction. Anderson said a good master plan costs $500,000 to $750,000 and would have required programming cuts during tight budget times, something Commissioners hesitated to do.

She said her top priority as a Board member would be to jumpstart the new master plan.

“I really want to have that conversation with the citizens of Minneapolis on a citywide, comprehensive basis and come out of that with an agenda and a plan for action for parks,” she said.

Commissioner Bob Fine said he thought the Board had allocated master plan money and didn’t konw why it had stalled.

Anderson said citizens behind a new agenda would build momentum to get money for a new master plan.

The issue of the Park Board’s internal discord has been “overplayed” and “overdone,” she said. She also said people wanted to know things were getting done “aboveboard.” She offered several ideas to improve Park Board citizen outreach.

She used to do “Superintendent Walks” around the park system and said if elected she would like to start “Commissioner Walks” to hear residents’ concerns, and other constituent meetings in less-formal settings.

Her departure from the Board was, by her own admission, “awkward.”

When the 2003 search for a new superintendent imploded, the Board voted down a last-minute motion to extend Anderson’s contract.

A later motion would have had her stay on for a few months, Anderson said. She declined. “There wasn’t any way for me to be helpful to that Board any longer,” she said. “I don’t have hard feelings.”

Anderson came in second in the eight-way primary and has DFL backing. Her large contributors include several unions and Brian Rice, the Park Board’s attorney and lobbyist.

Some in the park reform groups do not support her, seeing her as an extension of the current Park Board majority. Anderson said when she was superintendent, she implemented the Board’s policies. Being Commissioner is a different job, and she would work with anyone who wanted to improve the parks.