When a proposal to get rid of the park board hit Barbara Johnson’s desk, she said it surprised her, because it seemed to come out of the blue.
“It’s a terrible idea,” she said. “I don’t understand this antipathy toward the park board. I think it’s a power grab.”
Johnson, who is the Minneapolis City Council President and a three-term 4th Ward (North Minneapolis) city council member, said she served 18 years on the Metropolitan Council’s Parks and Open Space Commission before being elected to city council. “Minneapolis’ park system is its greatest asset,” she said. “We have it because people who were visionaries in the early establishment of this city stood up and made the decision to put aside large tracts of land and build trails that link the whole city. They were able to do it because they had the independence that allowed them to be separate from the general government.”
But 1st Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow–who proposed the plan along with Ralph Remington (10th Ward, in South Minneapolis) and Don Samuels (North Minneapolis’ 5th Ward)–said it’s time for residents to re-evaluate how the city works. The three are seeking changes to the city’s charter that would put the Park Board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s responsibilities under the auspices of a city administrator. (The city coordinator would become the City Administrator–a new title–under their plan.)
Don Samuels, a Northsider, was out of town last Friday and could not be reached for comment.
“The Park Board issue has somewhat overshadowed the other parts of the proposal,” Ostrow said. “The basic idea is to create strong professional management in city hall, so that the policies of the mayor and city council can be put into practice. Currently, all department heads report to 14 different bosses [13 council members and the mayor].
“If you’re going to improve city government and update it so that it’s effective and responsive,” Ostrow added, “you can’t leave the parks out of that equation. We currently have two separate elected bodies [the city council and the park board]. We’re seeing ongoing differences in terms of policies: we have two bike plans, two approaches to wi fi [wireless computer network]. On every issue, we’re setting ourselves up for conflicting views from the city.
“There are two police departments [Minneapolis Police Department and Park Police], two planning departments, two legal departments, two engineering departments,” he added. “Can those be justified, given the times we’re living in?
“People elect the mayor and the city council and hold them accountable. Right now they can’t and don’t, for the state of the parks. One of the problems with the system we have now is that the city council determines, through the Board of Estimates and Taxation, how much money the park board gets. The park board decides how to spend it.”
Other cities do it differently, Ostrow said. “All over the country, there are advisory boards that relate to the council and mayor about parks. I see a vigorous role here for such a board–made up of residents–who would be appointed by the council members and the mayor. Minneapolis is one of the few cities with this type of structure. People are handicapped by this form of government. Our park board system is outdated. The parks are the jewel of the city, but we need a unified vision, because parks are so central to so many things we do.
“The other thing that I’ve seen happening is that an awful lot of inertia builds up about the form of government,” Ostrow said. “It’s been a long time since citizens have voted on a major charter change. Right now we have a sea change in the political culture. This is the perfect time for people to have a say in this.”
When asked about the fact that neither he nor Remington are running for office again, he said, “Right. I’m not on the ballot this year. I’m not doing this for personal political gain. I care deeply about this city. I’ve spent 11 years working hard for the people of this city and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. I think it will be really good for the city if people are engaged in a conversation about how we’re governed. Minneapolis’ form of government was set up in the 1880s.”
Jon Olson, park commissioner for District 2, which covers North Minneapolis, said, “I think it’s a horrible idea. It takes away representation, which seems to be one of the city’s goals over the last few years. It didn’t surprise me; people have talked about it in the past when times were tough. For them [city council members], it’s easy to say, let’s do this. They’re shifting money around and eliminating things they don’t like.
“They’ve already eliminated the library board by starving them out. They’ve worked hard at starving us out too. We had an agreement with the city that we would get $70 million in neighborhood money from capital park improvements between 2001 and 2010. So far, we’ve gotten $24 million. The average tax increase the park board got was 2.1 percent; the city’s average is over 8 percent. That money has not been invested in neighborhood projects.
“They also got rid of NRP [Neighborhood Revitalization Program]. They’re centralizing government. They talk about hiring a city administrator. That’s just another high salary bureaucrat. And if they did that, why would we need a full time city council and mayor?
“We have a unique form of government in the city of Minneapolis, with a semi-autonomous, independent park board,” Olson added. “The park system was built because there was an independent board. In other cities and counties, where the parks are a department of the city, one of the things that gets cut when there is a budget issue is the parks. It will certainly help the city to absorb the park system; then they could shut down golf courses, or develop park land into housing. It would be a good deal for the city’s budget, but a horrible thing for the citizens.
“The best thing Minneapolis has going for it is its park system,” Olson said. “Two of those council members are not seeking re-election. If they were, they might have a different opinion. The citizens I’ve talked to since the story came out have all been adamantly opposed to the idea. I don’t think it’s good. It would have a negative effect.
“There wouldn’t be a police presence in the parks; you’d have parks that weren’t safe,” Olson added. “We currently have our own police department that follows up on investigations when crimes occur. The park police have ongoing relationships with a lot of young folks; they try to mentor them and make sure they’re involved in good things.
“I think that if that [charter change proposal] goes on the ballot in November, there should also be another question, asking, –‘Do you support a fully independent park board with its own taxing and bonding authority?’ Neighborhood parks are a tremendous asset.”
Johnson said that the council members who proposed the plan will likely bring it forward at the next council meeting (Feb. 6), to have it referred to the Intergovernmental Relations Committee (a Minneapolis City Council sub-committee), which will evaluate the proposal. “The committee can say no, and not forward it to the full council, they can forward it without a recommendation, or they can approve it and forward it. The city council has to act to send it over to the Charter Commission (whose 15 members are appointed by the Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge) and then the Charter Commission can put it on the ballot in November.”
The other way to get the issue on the ballot, Johnson added, would be to collect a certain number of residents’ signatures, based on how many people voted in the last general election.
“The problem with having the parks be just another city department,” Johnson said, “is that you end up with a tug of war over priorities. Questions come up, like, ‘is it better to spend money on football, or to teach kids how to eat properly?’ You get into people making those decisions.
“Minneapolis is a first class city with a full-time city council,” she added. “This is trying to turn us into a suburb, where the city manager runs all the departments. We have a $1.4 billion enterprise here. Do we want one person in charge of that? One non-elected person, in charge of all the people’s money?”
Johnson said that the proposal surprised her, and “it was just out there, out of the blue. There are ways to get things done in a collaborative way and there are ambushes. I sort of feel like this is our Pearl Harbor.”