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Park Board reticent to comment on upheaval (updated)

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. Superintendent Miller and several park board employees declined to comment. Fortunately the two Commissioners your Examiner contacted, Meg Forney and Liz Wielinski, were willing to go on record about this story.

Regarding the accusations of “low morale and fear of reprisal” Commissioner Forney said she had never personally seen anything like this but that she did notice a “bad tenor.” Commissioner Wielinski said she never saw a lot of problem areas but that workers were now living the “expectations of their job.” Forney said that Miller brought professionalism to the park board where there had previously been “cronyism” and “nepotism.”

Another explanation Yuen put forth was one of numbers: the park board’s operating budget is $10 million less than it was ten years ago and has a “workforce that’s about a fifth smaller than it was in 2003.” Forney said that “definitely that is true” but that every other level of city government has seen cuts in this time period. Wielinski concurred, saying that since 9/11 local government budgets have been strapped.

Yuen also described a consultant the park board brought in to look at the employment situation. The consultant found a “demoralized” institution that suffered from “fear, simmering anger, vindictiveness, and racial distrust.” Asked about this, Forney said she believed this consultant was hired by Supt. Miller but wondered aloud if the findings were “reflective of the former administration.” Wielinski said there were “some concerns” and that the Superintendent reviewed all cases of employee termination. She claimed that most of the people who were fired would have been anyway and did not blame it on the culture of the organization.

Asked if some of the internal changes did in fact begin with Miller, Forney said they “definitely” were and described former Superintendent Jon Gurban as a “bull in a china shop” who had “bad relationships with the outside world.” Wielinski largely concurred, describing the 2009 Commissioner elections as “bringing about change.” She described some of the changes Miller brought to the park board, including bringing “the financial system to reasonable accuracy,” instituting better performance reviews, improving the workmen's compensation program to save “$400,000 a year,” and by moving recreational directors to different buildings. Forney said that the park board has also cut down many unnecessary costs when employees are injured.

Finally, according to Yuen, Supt. Miller was charged with bringing more diversity to the Park Board. Yuen reported that “employees of color now make up 15 percent of managers at the park board, up from zero in 2010.” Both Forney and Wielinski agreed that Miller did a good job increasing diversity within the organization. Forney also stated that many city government agencies have not dealt with the reality of disparities facing Minneapolis over the last decade and the park board is doing its part to correct this.

As stated, your Examiner attempted to reach out to multiple park board representatives to confirm Yuen’s original reporting. This list included Superintendent Miller, John Goodrich, Communications Director Dawn Sommers, and Human Resources director Pam French. Ms. French’s subordinate, Robyn Smothers, left a voicemail stating that the “MPR article had no legs and was buried” and said that “we prefer that’s where it stay and things not be brought up again.”

Your Examiner believes there may be more to this story and hopes that more people within the Park Board will speak with him about these issues.

UPDATE: This article has been amended to correct the impression that your Examiner could only get two Park Board Commissioners to speak on record. In fact, he only reached out to the two quoted in this article. Commissioner Brad Bourn has since offered to discuss his view of all of these issues, and will be featured in a follow-up article.

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