The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board is one of the oldest institutions in the state of Minnesota, dating back to the 19th century. According to the MPB’s website, it “consists of 197 park properties” which “total nearly 6744 acres of parkland and water.” It states that the park system “serves nearly 400,000 citizens of Minneapolis” and is visited by close to “18 million” people. Covering vast swaths of city and county terrain, this organization is the crown jewel of the local government system.
Unfortunately, there seems to be trouble in paradise. That’s at least according to Laura Yuen, reporter with Minnesota Public Radio, who uncovered some upheaval within the parks department in a recent story. In the piece, Yuen describes one perspective on the park board as a “complex and problematic system in which workers suffer from low morale and fear of reprisal.” She also details some major internal employee disputes, including a situation involving an older recreation center director being moved around to different centers repeatedly until he retired. Yuen posited in her story that many of the changes stem from new Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller, who took the helm in 2010 amid calls for accountability.
Your Examiner read this story with great interest and wanted to find out whether or not these allegations were true (readers can find part one of this series here). Upon publication of that story, your reporter was contacted by Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn, who disagreed with some of the comments of his fellow public officials and wanted to get his view on the record. Commissioner Bourn was elected to his seat in 2009 and began work in 2010. He was originally a youth program coordinator on the north side of Minneapolis and first got involved in the park system after the board was going to shut down a local park in his area. Your Examiner once again reached out to several park board employees for this article, but few were willing to speak on record.
Bourn said that some of the problems detailed in Yuen’s article had to do with a new competency system at the park board which re-named many employees “Recreation Specialists” and required certifications for various programs. This was a large reorganization of the work force and Bourn said that the lack of clear titles meant that some workers worried that the “titles don’t reflect the work they’re doing.” He also stated that more people were becoming less happy at this time and “management was not actively listening to them.”
Regarding those allegations of “low morale and fear of reprisal,” Bourn said that while as Commissioner he’s not at the “ground level” of these problems it’s hard to tell if these complaints are founded, depending on how many people were making them. Yuen also reported on an “outside consultant” who was brought in to investigate these issues and reported that the park board work force was “demoralized,” among other things. Bourn said that the findings of the consultant were “pretty alarming. He said that this brought about some reorganization, helped by the Urban League, but that the report was then shelved. He lamented that the park board didn’t communicate very well what had been done and that a lot of the talk focused on the negative aspects.
Booker Hodges, former President of the NAACP in Minneapolis, was another consultant brought in during the last few years to investigate some employee allegations. In a phone interview Mr. Hodges stated that after investigating 160 complaints, around 130 resulted in the employee being “satisfied” with the outcome. He said many issues were personality-driven and that internal park board audits found this as well. Mr. Hodges described his work as a five-year project and that the park board should be able to “clearly see the results.”
Mr. Bourn’s largest point of contention was the notion that these accountability changes began with the hiring of Superintendent Jane Miller in 2010. Bourn said this was “very unfair” and “absolutely untrue” and listed off many superintendents that had come before Miller, each who brought their own reorganization style over twenty years. Bourn said it was “disrespectful” to contend that the park board was not used to a new level of accountability. He stated that most employees of the park board are doing the best jobs they can do. He mentioned an employee interviewed by Yuen: Cordell “Corky” Wiseman, who was at once discouraged by some of the problems but also heartened that the management took the steps they did to correct problems. Bourn said Wiseman’s description in Yuen’s story was “pitch perfect.” Your Examiner did reach out to Mr. Wiseman for this story but did not get a response by press time. Mr. Hodges said that Superintendent Miller did meet personally with many employees of the park board and “made significant progress.”
Regarding whether Supt. Miller brought more diversity to the park board, Bourn said “on some levels, absolutely,” going on to say that “upper leadership” became more “gender/ethnically diverse.” He described the “systemic problems” the park board had in making these types of hires and that internally there were differing opinions on how to deal with it. He said this issue should be the board’s “number one priority” but it was not.
As with the previous article, your Examiner did try reaching out to workers at different levels of the Minneapolis Park Board. This included Commissioner Jon Olson, Cynthia Wilson, Jamie Neldner, Larry Umphrey, Cordell Wiseman, and Bruce Chamberlain. Assistant Superintendent for Recreation J. Nicholas Williams did agree to answer some questions but did not respond by press time. While this will wrap up the series, your Examiner still hopes that more people within the park board will speak with him about these issues.