Bad blood on the board

Why can't Park Board members get along?

If the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board didn't have enough troubles --with state budget cuts and criticism from city officials on everything from its separate police force to its new headquarters building -- now, festering internal problems are boiling to the surface.

The Board's 5-4 vote Dec. 17 to hire Jon Gurban as the next superintendent brought things to a head. Four Commissioners said they were not informed of the vote and expressed their displeasure in the strongest terms. Decorum broke down. After the meeting, dissenters described events as "disrespectful," "shameful," "vile" and "filth."

Why the rift? It's not City Hall with heated debates about affordable housing or police mediation -- it's the Park Board, the warm fuzzy of city services: wading pools, beaches and fountains. Commissioners work part-time and get $10,200 a year for their pains.

Over the years, the Park Board has not had a string of 5-4 votes, with the same five and the same four squaring off. Those who voted against Gurban -- Vivian Mason, Annie Young, Rochelle Berry Grave and John Erwin -- by no means are a consistent voting block.

Commissioner Marie Hauser, a Gurban backer, said some who opposed him have significant decision-making roles on the Board. Young chairs the Operations and Environment Committee and Berry Graves chairs the recreation committee. Erwin is the new vice president. That is not the sign of a deeply divided Board, she said.

Some have attributed the problem to personality conflicts. Others, such as Mason and Berry Graves, say the Gurban vote only reflects a pattern of behind-the-scenes decision-making that cuts out some Commissioners and the public.

The breakdown of decorum and the problems that spurred them -- perceived or real -- could have serious consequences.

The rift could hurt recruiting efforts for a permanent superintendent. The candidate pool is relatively small and word of Board dissention will get out. (The Board plans to jumpstart the search this spring.)

The rift could erode public confidence. Between 50 and 75 people showed up prior to the Jan. 3 Park Board meeting to protest Gurban's hiring, the largest public turnout for a board meeting in years. (The crowd included several potential candidates -- Scott Vreeland who ran against Hauser in 2001, Meg Forney, who ran citywide and lost, and Lisa McDonald, a former City Councilmember.)

The rift could erode Board sovereignty. The city and Park Board have dueling legal opinions about whether the mayor has veto authority over the superintendent's hiring. Mayoral aide Peter Wagenius attended the Jan. 3 Park Board meeting as an observer, a rare appearance from the mayor's office.

Commissioners offered a few olive branches at the meeting. Young put truffles at each Commissioner's seat. Both Fine and Hauser stepped down from leadership spots making way for new blood.

The Board split again on a new president, however; Jon Olson beat Erwin on the same 5-4 vote that hired Gurban.

Commissioner Walt Dziedzic served 21 years on the City Council and said afterward that he saw his share of intramural squabbles. At the Council, people had their offices in the same area, and while they fought in public, they were civil in private.

"That is not happening here," he said.

The Mason-Fine line The extremes of dissent are represented by Southwest's two Commissioners: Vivian Mason, who has had ongoing disputes with past President Bob Fine and others in leadership. Fine represents most of Southwest north to Lake Street. Mason represents the Cedar-Isles-Bryn Mawr area, west Calhoun and downtown.

Mason stood alone in opposing new Park Board headquarters purchase. The Board made the decision hastily, without sufficient notice, she said.

She dismissed the idea that the Board split is "personality conflicts." "I think the biggest reason for a split on the Board is that decisions are made outside of the public meeting," she said. "They are not interested in public input."

Fine said he and Mason used to be friends and she used to be part of the Board majority. Their first big conflict came over a disagreement on a Calhoun Beach Club curb cut along Dean Parkway in Mason's district.

Neighbors complained about the heavy traffic, wrong-way drivers and double parking. Fine said Mason had Board Attorney Brian Rice write an opinion stating the curb cut was illegal.

"She ordered the Park Police -- on her own -- to board it up," Fine said, which triggered lawsuit threats.

Fine criticized Mason for sidestepping the superintendent. "What she did was bad, but she fought us on it. That is when she started to turn against us because we didn't support her," he said. "We went through a year and a half of hassle where Vivian brought it up, I think, at every meeting and demanded stuff from staff. She started to irritate a lot of us."

Dziedzic agreed, saying ever since Mason "barricaded" the Calhoun Beach Hotel, "things have just been really bad."

Mason said she did not order the barricades and referred questions to Assistant Superintendent Mike Schmidt.

Schmidt candidly said it was his decision -- not Mason's -- that got the board in legal hot water. Mason asked about the curb cut, he said. He discussed the issue with legal counsel and the superintendent. The Beach Club had not adequately responded to neighborhood traffic concerns and did not appear to have a current curb cut permit.

"I had the barricades put up. I thought I was doing that within the authority that I had," he said, not realizing the legal fallout.

"Did Commissioner Mason order me to put the barricades up? No, she did not," he said.

Political sparring Mason said the rift stems in part from her vote against Fine for president one year.

Recalled Fine: "I was running unopposed, and she voted no."

The two have taken different stances on many issues over the years: the headquarters building, the urgency of a dog park in Southwest, the appointment of Fine-backer Scott Neiman to the Redistricting Commission, and the reuse of the old superintendent's house, 3954 Bryant Ave. S. to name a few.

The 2001 election added fuel to the fire.

Fine said Mason got her friend Tracy Nordstrom to run against him in 2001. Mason "was door-knocking in the Southwest area while she was running her own election," he said. "You wouldn't believe the names I was called."

Mason said she never said anything about Bob Fine, only supported Tracy Nordstrom, adding that Fine actively supported Mason's opponent.

Mason and Fine both got reelected. The first year of their new term, Fine gave Mason a single committee assignment -- Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs, according to Park Board records.

Mason said she was being "punished."

Fine called it a majority decision by the Board. "We had someone who was acting counter to the rest of the Board constantly," he said. "She wasn't doing productive things; she was fighting the board on everything. Do you reward someone who fights the Board on everything?"

Hauser said that rather than a 5-4 split, "I would say that Commissioner Mason has seemed to have a vendetta in which every decision is made opposite of Bob Fine and seems to have tried to forge an alliance with the other Commissioners," she said.

Mason asks a lot of questions, and it apparently grates on some people. Young said some people think Mason sounds angry when she talks, but she [Young] doesn't take it that way.

"I don't think she is vengeful about this," Young said. "Most of the things she asks questions about are process things. Since when aren't we supposed to ask questions?"

The spectrum of dissent Fine said the rift has existed since he first joined the Board in 1998. That year, the Board sanctioned Berry Graves, an African-American woman, for making racially incentive remarks to a park employee. It took away her vice president's job and committee assignments when she refused to apologize, according to a Star Tribune article.

Fine said, from that point, Berry Graves "was backed into a corner."

Berry Graves said she has no residual tension from that five-year-old incident. The problem is the lack of communication to all the Commissioners, she said.

Young said in an ideal Board, people would bring different skills and complement each other.

"You put all the different ingredients in the salad and you hope you come up with a great salad," said the Green Party member. "But no, we have come up with a salad that tastes absolutely horrible when you put all the vegetables together. What is that all about? … How did this happen? I don't have the answer."

She said tensions surfaced on the Neiman Sports Complex now at Ft. Snelling, and in filling Board vacancies. She is stunned by how a board majority hired Gurban, saying there are ethical problems. She does not see Board member relations getting better until the next election.

President Jon Olson said he thinks things are already improving.

Mason, Young and Berry Graves all attended the Jan. 3 rally prior to a Park Board meeting, with people opposing the process used to hire Gurban.

The one member of the Gurban minority who didn't attend the rally -- Erwin -- has had successes during his two years in office. They include promoting the Loppet cross-country ski race, a community gardening policy and a plan -- still on the drawing board -- to provide citywide wireless Internet access through park buildings.

He voted against Gurban, but aside from an outburst at the Board meeting, has tried to choose his words carefully, avoiding provocative statements.

"I would say the responsibility for the division is historical. I think it is important that the new Commissioners lead the Board out of this," he said.