Sitting on the Park Board, eyeing the mayor’s office

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine, a late entry in the mayor's race, aims to improve city operations

Bob Fine announcing his candidacy Aug. 5 at the Lake Harriet Bandshell. Credit: File photo

LINDEN HILLS — Except for the few years he spent in St. Louis, Mo., to attend law school at Washington University, mayoral candidate Bob Fine has lived his entire life in Minneapolis.

All four of Fine’s grandparents were North Siders, and his grandchildren are the family’s fifth generation to attend Minneapolis Public Schools. His Linden Hills home, where he lives with his wife, Sylvia, and keeps four chickens in a backyard coop, is just down the block from the house he grew up in.

His family roots run deep, but Fine cemented his bond with Minneapolis in its parks. A lifeguard on city beaches as a teenager, Fine has coached parks league sports teams for nearly four decades and is in his fourth term as a Park Board commissioner.

“We’re why tourists come to Minneapolis, why people want to live in Minneapolis,” he said. “It’s the park system.”

Fine’s public service includes 18 years as an appointee to the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, and he’s represented the Park Board on various bodies, including the Board of Estimate & Taxation and the Youth Coordinating Board. In addition to practicing law, he’s worked in real estate development and management.

Long rumored to be considering a run, Fine held off on the official announcement until August, setting aside a DFL endorsement for a fifth term on the Park Board to vie for the mayor’s office. In conversation, he sounded reluctant to leave the Park Board, but the self-described “fiscal conservative” was also eager to bring some of the lessons he learned there to City Hall.

Seeking efficiency

Fine is running on a three-point platform, and two of those goals are related: auditing each city department and cutting property taxes 5 percent.

He hasn’t proposed specific cuts, and said it would take some time on the job to identify them. His service on the Board of Estimate and Taxation convinced him there is slack in city government, and an audit would show where operations could be tightened, he said.

In terms of efficiency, he said: “I don’t believe the city’s anywhere close [to the Park Board], and to me it’s a frustration to watch it.”

Over the past decade, Fine noted, the Park Board held to a lower annual average increase in its property tax levy: 3.9 percent compared to the city’s 7.1 percent. Both reduced their workforces over that time — the Park Board by 17 percent and the city by 9 percent, according to budget documents.

In August, Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed a 1-percent cut in the property tax levy, the first reduction in two decades, citing an increase in state aid and a 2012 budget surplus, among other factors. Fine suggested that, by itself, the additional state aid would allow for a deeper cut in the levy.

“That tells you something,” he said. “Instead, maybe there’s some spending programs, and there’s probably less of a willingness to cut from departments.”

Fine also aims to make the city friendlier to small and large businesses, arguing city departments are slow to act on permit requests and generally don’t treat businesses like customers.

Cautious on spending

Fine’s fiscal conservatism colors his views on two much-debated transit projects: Southwest light rail transit and Minneapolis streetcars.

When other Park Board members in August expressed support for routing light rail through a deep tunnel below the Kenilworth Corridor, Fine objected, citing its enormous $330-million cost. Fine said he has “serious concerns” about streetcars, which he described as “cute” but too costly.

Asked about the firefighters union’s demands for increased funding, Fine said he’d have to learn more about their current staffing levels and the impact on response times.

As for police, Fine said he would work with chief and city attorney to focus police work on “actual safety,” which he contrasted with writing tickets for parking violations. And he said business development was key to improving public safety.

“I think the answer to problems on the North Side and other areas where we’re having more crime is the fact that young people don’t have jobs,” he said.

Supporters and critics

Former City Council member Pat Scott said she’d probably have two lawn signs in front of her Kenwood home this fall, including one for mayoral candidate Mark Andrew. But Fine, who Scott praised as “very positive and can-do,” will get first place on her ranked-choice ballot, she said.

Scott was among a group of Southwest residents who closely monitored an ongoing Lake of the Isles renovation. Begun in 2001, it experienced a series of setbacks. Fine, she said, listened to their concerns and helped amend plans for the shoreline.

“He was far and away the most reasonable person on the Park Board,” she said.

Other Park Board observers are tougher on Fine, including Arlene Fried, a cofounder of Minneapolis Park Watch, a group formed in 2003 after Jon Gurban was hired as parks superintendent. Critics said Gurban didn’t deal well with the public, and his tempestuous tenure ended in 2010, after an election brought in three new commissioners.

“Bob was supporting him and it makes one want to question his ability to judge character,” Fried said.

Still, after 39 years as a coach and 16 years as on the Park Board, Fine has strong support in the local youth athletics community, including Hannah Lieder. The board president of Minneapolis Swims, a nonprofit formed to save Phillips Pool, the city’s only public indoor swimming pool, has found a champion in the former lifeguard.

“He’s really good at negotiating and building consensus, advocating and standing strong for something he believes in,” Lieder said. “I always knew going to the Park Board we had a strong advocate in Bob.”


At a glance: Bob Fine

Age: 64

Neighborhood: Linden Hills

Profession: Attorney; real estate developer and manager.

Family: Wife, Sylvia, and four adult children.

Education: Bachelors degrees in history and math from the University of Minnesota; law degree from Washington University in St. Louis.

Fun fact: Fine is an urban chicken farmer.



Twitter: @FineforMayor