Minneapolis Parks and Recreation overhauls planning department

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There’s been an overhaul of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation planning department, where six staff members have been let go.  The decision was made by the new MPRB Superintendent Jayne Miller, who started with the park system in November. 

The restructuring of the planning department includes the hiring of a new Assistant Superintendent for Planning Services, landscape architect Bruce Chamberlain, who will assume his duties in June, according to Minneapolis Park Watch. Judd Rietkerk, the previous Assistant Superintendent, who has worked for MPRB since 1997, said he was first reassigned to special projects and then had his contract terminated in March.  Nicholas Eoloff, Andrew Lesch, Eric Rehm, Alexander Zachary, and Lonnie Nichols have also been let go, according to Dawn Summers, Public Information Manager at MPRB. 

On March 31, Miller wrote a letter to the Park Board Commissioners and staff members explaining her decision.  “Having assessed the current structure, services and positions within the Planning Department, and weighing that against the community needs and our organizational vision for our Planning function, I have determined we need to change the framework of how our Planning Department operates,” Miller wrote.  “We need a strong research-based planning function that provides leadership in shaping the future of the park system to meet the changing demographics of our City. It is also vital that the project management function provide forward thinking park design and development that is integrated with our vision and strategic plan. Both planning functions must also proactively and effectively incorporate community engagement and provide excellent service to successfully engage and meet the needs of those we serve.”

In Miller’s letter, she said the restructuring will continue in the next several months “until we have a full complement of staff on board to deliver essential visionary and strategic services.” 

John Erwin, Chair of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, said that while the restructuring decisions were under the purview of Miller, the Park Board had indicated to the Superintendent some changes that they felt needed to be made.  For example, Erwin said that the commissioners desire the planning department to increase the amount of external funding that they apply for.  “Since this board has come into office we’ve been asking for that.  Another change that the commissioners asked for of the superintendent is a change in the way that staff engages with the community.  “We expect the public to be treated with respect,” he said.  “We’ve asked that their opinions be valued,” he said.  Erwin said that though it was ultimately Miller’s decision to make staff changes, it was the commissioners that said to her “We’re not happy with the way things are going—fix it.” 

Arlene Fried, from Minneapolis Park Watch, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision, especially in regard to a couple of the planning staff.  She said she saw one of the staff members lose their temper at a community meeting.  The main problem, though, she said, was a lack of communication with the public about projects.  For example, the planning department was planning to reconfigure a parking lot on Lake Calhoun that was used by Wind Surfers.  The department called it a maintenance project, as opposed to a planning project, and didn’t initially make public the plans for the reconfiguration, which would have made it much more difficult for surfers to unload their gear into the lake. “That’s not the way things are supposed to be done,” Fried said.  “There was never a public meeting, or a CAC (Community Advisory Council)… That was a terrible example of leadership.”

Fried said she feels hopeful that the new staffing changes will ultimately benefit the park board, which her website has criticizedl.  She said many past critics of the park board are particularly pleased with the hiring of Bruce Chamberlain, a well-regarded landscape architect respected by many for his past work.  As for Jayne Miller, Fried said, “I respect very much.  I really like her.  She’s doing what she has to do.”

Even if the changes will ultimately improve the planning department, there are still six people who have just lost their jobs. Rietkerk said he won’t re-apply with the Park Board, but hopes to find employment elsewhere.