Park Commissioner Qualifications: Not an Afterthought

This year’s Minneapolis Park Board elections could be the most closely contested in some time. In that light, I have proposed below a few questions you might ask.

I have avoided park board politics and elections in the past, but I cannot refrain from expressing an opinion this year. With only a few exceptions, I have voted for DFL-endorsed candidates for nearly forty years. I interned for a DFL legislator in college, I have assisted numerous DFL campaigns with time and money, and I have been a delegate to DFL conventions, but…

This year I will not vote for the DFL-endorsed candidate in my district, Brad Bourn, or for any of the three DFL-endorsed at-large candidates for the Park Board. Instead I will vote for Bob Fine in District 6 and for Mike Derus, Meg Forney and LaTrisha Vetaw as at-large candidates. Two trusted and experienced hands who know the ropes and two exciting new voices. I encourage you to give those candidates careful consideration.

Do you want commissioners who respect others? Listen carefully to candidates when they talk to or about park board staff, commissioners and other political entities. It has become too common to demand respect while showing none, an affliction attributed to more than one DFL-endorsed park commission candidate this year. If, for instance, candidates show no respect for staff people who have committed years to the park system and, in my experience, are dedicated, knowledgeable and fair, will they show any respect for you?  It may be exciting to talk about “cleaning house” at Park Board HQ, as I have heard some candidates do, but that sounds surprisingly like Scott Pruitt at EPA and Rex Tillerson at State. “Let’s get rid of people who know things.” That’s very Trumpian and we have enough of that in Washington, we don’t need more of it, in different clothes, in Minneapolis. We don’t need to “blow up” the Park Board any more than we needed to blow up EPA, or Education, Interior and State on a national level. In fact, we can’t afford to.

Do candidates sound like they are running for City Council, Congress or President, instead of Park Commissioner? This year’s Park Board elections are not a referendum on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. You are voting for who can best run Minneapolis’s parks. If candidates speak primarily of national political issues instead of local park issues, be very wary. Parks are an essential element of the quality of life in this city, but the Park Board is not magically going to solve national, international or galactic problems. The Park Board is not the City Council, let alone Congress. Each of those bodies has its own focus. I hope we won’t diminish the importance of the Park Board by treating it as some insignificant appendage to national politics as many Our Revolution DFL candidates seem to do. You cannot get back at Donald Trump — or Hillary Clinton — by treating our park system as an afterthought. Four years of mismanagement could take decades to fix.

Do you want commissioners who can manage complex relationships? Anyone who speaks as if the Minneapolis Park Board is free to do whatever it pleases, unconstrained, has no grasp of the challenges faced by our park system. The Governor and Met Council, Legislators and County Commissioners, and Mayor and City Council play large roles in park issues. I hope you will vote for candidates who stand a reasonable chance by inclination and experience to manage those relationships advantageously. (And, please, elect people to the other offices who can do the same.) The Minneapolis Park Board has always been fiercely independent, and it should be, but it has also depended on astute and constructive relationships with other government entities, whether municipal, regional, state or federal. Minneapolis parks have benefitted from strong intergovernmental relationships in many ways — from the Park Board’s creation in 1883 to the neighborhood park funding agreement with the City Council last year. There often has been tension in those dynamic relationships, but if you doubt the claim that Minneapolis parks cannot stand alone, try operating Minneapolis parks without money from the state through the regional park system, other county and state grants, and federal programs.

One of the silliest things I’ve ever heard from a park commission candidate is that he wants a “Neo-Liberal Free Park Board.” Other than never having heard any park commissioners or candidates define themselves by that term — or concept — it is an extreme example of trying to cram Minneapolis parks into a blindly partisan national political box. So please don’t vote for Devin Hogan as an at-large candidate. So much for his claim to want to work with others! If he’s insulting what I presume are other Democrats, do you wonder how he might work with a potential Republican legislature or Met Council? So Bannon-esque!

Do you want commissioners who understand the Minneapolis park system? Minneapolis parks are the envy of much of the urban world because they were developed as a “system.” It is a work of preservation and creation. Thanks forever to H.W.S. Cleveland who proposed such a system from the beginning of the park board’s existence in 1883 and to shrewd commissioners of all political persuasions who accepted that wisdom.  Because of the value perceived in a system of parks, we have a network of parkways, the Grand Rounds, that link anchor parks throughout the city and provide multidimensional connections to every part of the city and beyond. Minneapolis wouldn’t be one of the premier biking cities without the parkways and bikeways created by the park board. Add parks that take advantage of natural resources intended to serve the entire city, as well as parks that serve larger or smaller neighborhood needs. From the first park board, which placed a neighborhood park in each quadrant of the city, Minneapolis has benefitted from sincere and successful efforts to distribute parks throughout the city, which along with the connecting parkways has created the system envisioned by Cleveland and other park advocates.

Do candidates have plans for achieving concrete goals? Make America Great Again. A Chicken in Every Pot. Parks for Everyone. Stop Pesticides. All empty slogans. How specifically will candidates achieve those goals? Not only what must be done, but what must be done differently than in the past. So much of the empty rhetoric I hear has little factual basis. Do candidates know what progress has been made — or not — toward achieving the goals they espouse? If they can’t answer how they would do things differently to achieve explicit goals — with concrete action — think long and hard before you vote for them, because it means they aren’t serious about running our parks. Slogans are easy — Drain the Swamp! — but action is hard. Ask this time. Demand details. And make sure the answers focus on parks and not politics on some other stage.

Do candidates believe the TV show Parks and Recreation was a documentary or a sitcom? If candidates act like Ron Swanson, Leslie Knope and crew were real-life characters whose hilarious incompetence or disinterest represents real park administrators and issues, please don’t vote for them. Running an immense and excellent park system is serious business. More serious than the DFL convention seemed to think this year.

I have not investigated and do not know all the park commissioner candidates from all park districts, but I would hope that District Five voters would re-elect Steffanie Musich, who does have the DFL endorsement and has proven herself a thoughtful and effective commissioner.

David C. Smith

13 comments so far

  1. William Hunter Duncan on

    Comparing the progressive candidates to Trump, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson and Bannon sounds to me like you are a neo-liberal, all about corporations, banks, eternal war, big money, and debt servitude for those of us who are not connected to TPTB. All hail the status quo? Extermination of pollinators? Sod, sod and more sod as far as the eye can see? Golf is great but fruit trees, shrubs, canes and vines are for private property for those who own it to sell it to you?

    I think I will not vote for anyone you recommend (except for Ms Musich, if mostly because the lies offered up by her opponent are egregious.)

    At least you did not say the progressive candidates are stools for Putin, lol.

    • Smith on

      I guess I am being insulted. (For all of you conservatives that have chastised me in private communications, please note that paleo-liberals, to coin a phrase?, are as nasty.) My only response to those of you who are voting tomorrow is to note the tone and the dogma of a presumed supporter of the DFL-endorsed candidates for park commissioner. The writer somehow conflates corporations, banks and war, all of which I gather he opposes, with positions on pollinators, golf, sod, other trees and plants. and the status quo. As for the other people he mentions, I underscored their actions specifically because they have gutted critical government agencies for ideological reasons, which is precisely what I have heard the DFL-endorsed park board candidates advocate, thus the comparison, though I suspect they would disavow any similarities.

      I repeat: Fine, Derus, Forney and Vetaw. I can’t honestly tell you their positions on corporations, banks and war, but I like how they approach the management of parks and the respect they have shown for others.

  2. Michael Fredric on

    Thanks for these words. It took guts to do it.

  3. Elsa Carpenter on

    Your observations would have had more validity if you yourself didn’t broaden your remarks to slam national figures….

    • Smith on

      If you are suggesting that my comments on local elections are invalid only because I implied criticism the President’s performance and behavior, then you are applying the narrowest of partisan political standards to park issues. I do not have to hide my disagreements with a President, or his appointees, to find areas of common interest with his supporters. I am glad you might otherwise find my positions valid.

  4. Connie Sullivan on

    What a breath of fresh air in this year’s park board campaign! Thanks for giving lots of people a real “heads up!” on candidates.

  5. Tom Balcom on

    Thanks David. I always enjoy your history blog and this time your park board political commentary and candidate choices are right on!! I hope Minneapolis voters are paying attention for this important election.

  6. Joseph Finley on

    Bravo and Thank You!

  7. kimbercat on

    Here…here! Very well said! Thank you!

    • Joan on

      Mr. Smith, I was very interested in your book on the history of the Minneapolis Parks. It was very informative as to how we got to where we are today. At times it was disturbing to hear how land was acquired and manipulated into the system we enjoy. I do have great concerns with the current stewardship of our parks and lakes. I live in the Diamond Lake neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Since 2014 we have seen a large increase in sewer connection breaks, water in basements, sinking foundations, and sinkholes. On my block alone in 2014 we had 8 sewer connection breaks the city attributed to rising groundwater. We addressed concerns with the city as well as the park board as we were seeing an increase in water at Solomon Park, Lake Nokomis and the holding ponds. Today I have over 70 addresses of homes and streets affected by these issues. Residents living on 14th Ave near Solomon Park have lost one-third of their backyards due to water pumped into Solomon. We see the domino effect coming from Mothers lake to Taft to Solomon on into Nokomis. I have pictures of flooded basements, sinking foundations, and broken sewer mains, at costs ranging from $5,000-$60,000. We have reached out to the Park Board and City asking for relief, only to be ignored by some and told it was attributed to high amounts of precipitation. I think a different story is unfolding.
      Please look at this link from the Star Tribune of pictures comparing the years of 2010 and 2016. Pay special attention to the growth of area lakes, the creek as well as the beach erosion at Nokomis, and the area where the creek enters Hiawatha. Walk around those lakes and notice the dead trees. This is what causes me to wonder if current leadership are good stewards of our parkland as well as to the residents living in those areas.
      Make sure you switch to the aerial setting and zoom into these locations. I think you will see dramatic changes.
      I am not a hydrologist, but I would love to spend some of the park board/Minnehaha Creek Watershed money on hiring one to tell us how to better manage the water on our end of the creek and in our lakes so it won’t have costly repercussions to those living here. I agree with you, pay special attention to who you are voting for as they will make decisions that will affect the value of your homes and the environmental impact to our parks.

      • Smith on

        I’m sorry to hear how wide spread the water issues are in your neighborhood, Joan. I was aware of high-water issues closer to Nokomis and Hiawatha, but hadn’t heard how far west the rising water levels were having an impact. I hope the park board can be a part of solving those issues, but it sounds as if it goes beyond the park board’s authority to address by itself. As beautiful asour water resources are, they can be destructive and very hard to contain. Water levels — too high or too low — have been an issue in Minneapolis city and park politics from the beginning. You are right, too, Joan in that the scope of the water problems you raise underscores the importance of electing park commissioners — and city officials — who have the will and skill to work across institutional and political boundaries to solve problems. I hope the new park board, city council and mayor can help find a solution to your water problems. I will also hope for a dry winter. Keep us posted.

      • Julia Vanatta on

        I too hope there can be some mitigation for high water problems in and around our lakes. I can only imagine the stress of how this has affected you and your neighbors.
        Given what scientists have projected via recently released climate models, mother nature will continue to send more water our way, and water needs somewhere to go. We do not live near a lake but also have water problems due to an underground water table (Longfellow). As the water will not simply disappear, I have pointed out to several neighbors that the best investment they can make to their homes is protect their basement and foundations from water. Our own drain tile is no longer adequate…sigh.
        A bit of history: Central Minneapolis was an open prairie prior to settlement. The root systems of prairie plants took rain water deep into the ground, preventing erosion and run off. Our current impermeable surfaces throughout the city and county take water to our lakes and rivers via storm water sewers, raising levels beyond the original flood plains, many of which have been filled for development. Something our park and city can do is to continue to move our culture away from large expanses of turf grass, adding more native plants in non-recreational spaces.
        AS for our park board, I would like see MPRB take the lead on educating neighborhoods about options available to reduce storm water run off. It will take a change of mindset and culture to achieve this, but if you and all of your neighbors embrace the idea, you will have moved our culture in a more systainable direction.
        I would also like to see the city offer low interest loans or grants to help homeowners protect their property.
        I really appreciated Dave’s comments on the Park Board election, he voiced my concerns very eloquently. I know several of the park board candidates, including those from Our Revolution. I support those who share my concerns but can build relationships through being good listeners and communicating in a respectful manner.

      • Smith on

        Thanks for your thoughtful addition to the discussion, Julia. Excellent ideas.

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