Conspiracy OR cure-all

Anatomy of the Park Board's explosive superintendent vote

Jon Gurban, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's controversial new superintendent, has worked for the past decade for a group that runs youth and adult sports leagues, trains park and recreational professionals, and lobbies statewide on park issues.

As executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association (MRPA), Gurban oversaw a staff of five, 200 volunteers and a budget of less than $1 million. He now takes over a $67 million operation with nearly 1,000 full-time-equivalent employees.

The board selected Gurban Dec. 17 on a highly contentious 5-4 vote. He had not applied. He had not interviewed. He had not had any management or psychological tests or background checks. How did it happen?

The four Commissioners who voted no -- John Erwin, Vivian Mason, Rochelle Berry Graves and Annie Young -- expressed outrage at the process, saying they got no prior notice of the vote. Mason said the five who voted for Gurban must have gotten a group rate on "shamectomies." Graves described the process as "vile" and "filth." Erwin called the surprise nomination "disrespectful." Young said she wondered whether the Board majority had violated open meetings laws.

The five Commissioners who voted yes --Bob Fine, Marie Hauser, Walt Dziedzic, Jon Olson and Carol Kummer -- say the Board had to act quickly, after the two finalists that emerged from the formal search process both withdrew. Individual members of the Board majority said they talked to Gurban on their own, talked to people who knew Gurban and came to their own decisions independently. They tout Gurban as an effective leader and someone who has run park systems before, including Apple Valley, and who could hit the ground running. He knows the Minneapolis park system, and, he has staff backing they said.

Gurban said he talked to most of the majority commissioners prior to the vote, but none of those who eventually dissented. "It is regrettable," he said. "I am sorry about that, but I pretty well let those [majority] commissioners call the shots. I didn't think it was my place."

The expedited process produced at least one case of buyer's remorse. Shortly after the vote, the StarTribune reported that the state Gambling Control Board pulled MRPA's charitable gambling license in 1998 because of pull tab management problems. Dziedzic said had he known Dec. 17 of the charitable gambling issue, he probably would not have voted for Gurban. "I don't think we have a choice now," Dziedzic said, adding that Gurban has one year to prove himself. "The contract has been signed. We signed a $112,000 contract."

Distraught Several members in the Board majority, including Kummer, readily acknowledge they wish the process had gone better. "It's awkward. It wasn't the most standup way to do it. There was a sense of urgency," she said.

The Board's formal search process imploded when its top candidate, John VonDeLinde, Anoka County's park director, withdrew hours before a scheduled Dec. 10 vote. As Fine tells it, he got the news from Ted Flickenger, the consultant leading the search process, the day of the vote, leaving him "distraught."

That same day, Fine said Gurban called, telling him VonDeLinde would withdraw. (Gurban has known VonDeLinde, who serves on the MRPA board, for 20 years). Fine urged Gurban to talk to VonDeLinde "to try to patch things up and get him to do it," Fine said.

Fine called Gurban again, immediately prior to the Board meeting, Fine said. VonDeLinde wouldn't reconsider. Gurban offered to help the Park Board find an interim candidate. "That is how he left it with me," Fine said. "I got off the phone and [Superintendent Mary Merrill Anderson] told me that Jon Gurban is probably the best person in the state to run the system."

Olson was around during the exchange, Fine said. The following night, Olson called him and floated Gurban's name. Fine said he dismissed it. Gurban could not get five votes, he said. In addition, Fine said he went to high school with Gurban and, while they were not friends, people would perceive a conflict.

Olson (who replaced Fine as Board president Jan. 2) said he pursued the idea. He knew Gurban and knew people who spoke well of him, including City Councilmember Barbara Johnson (4th Ward), Olson said. (Johnson served 18 years on the Metro Parks and Open Space Commission and followed Gurban's career, she said. She credits him with broadening the parks lobbying effort from a narrow group of park and recreation directors to environmental and fishermen groups.)

Olson didn't talk to Gurban about the interim job in any detail, he said. "I just found out if he was interested in serving as an interim and left it at that. It wasn't a big conspiracy like they are making it out to be," Olson said.

Private interviews Olson said he called Marie Hauser and said the Board should consider Gurban as an interim superintendent.

Hauser's version is slightly different. She said Olson met her in the doorway just prior to the Dec. 10 Board meeting, informing her that VonDeLinde had withdrawn. Olson told her the Board "should go in there and make a motion to hire Jon Gurban as interim superintendent," she said.

Hauser said she lacked information about Gurban to vote for him on the spot. Based on Olson's recommendation, she called Gurban the next day and made an appointment to see him. She spent an hour and a half with him, Hauser said. "Basically, I interviewed him and asked him the same questions that we had asked the other candidates," she said.

She also talked to Councilmembers who knew him, including Johnson, she said.

Kummer said she thinks Fine first mentioned Gurban's name as a candidate, though she is not "100 percent sure." She, too, interviewed Gurban, going to his office at 3957 Bryant Ave. S., the former Park Board superintendent's home. "I should have been out Christmas shopping, I remember that, and ended up spending an hour and a half maybe two hours there going through the house and talking to him," Kummer said.

She said she got as much information about him as she got from the seven finalists who had formal interviews before the Board. "An interview is kind of an unnatural situation anyway. It is very stylized," she said. "Actually just talking to someone, you get a better sense of who they are."

Dziedzic said Fine told him about Gurban's potential candidacy. Dziedzic had friends who had worked in or retired from park and recreation jobs and he began to ask them about Gurban. "It was a mixed response, more on the strong side for him," he said.

Dziedzic and Fine met Gurban Saturday, Dec. 13 at Panera Bread, 10 University Ave. NE, Dziedzic said. They talked for several hours. "I asked him if he had any skeletons in his closet," Dziedzic said. "He came from Canada, and I figured he was one of them draft dodgers. That wasn't the case."

Gurban did not mention MRPA's charitable gambling problems, however, Dziedzic said. Dziedzic characterized the interview as "very good" but had not yet made up his mind. An hour before the Dec. 17 meeting, he said, he went to talk to Superintendent Anderson about Gurban, he said. "She convinced me," he said. "She was very strong, saying he can really do the job. That is what pushed it over the top for me."

Reached at her home after her retirement, Anderson called Gurban "a solid professional" who met the job's qualifications. "I think he would be a good choice for interim."

Blindsided? The four dissenting Commissioners complained about the lack of notice -- to them and the public -- about the vote. Erwin said he learned of Gurban's candidacy 15 minutes before the meeting. "It is the responsibility of the leadership to contact all Commissioners regarding decisions like this," he said.

After the meeting, Fine defended the process. Young, Mason and Graves were familiar with Gurban, he said. Gurban had applied for the superintendent's job in 1999, when the three were Board members. (Gurban was not a finalist that year, Fine said. The Board chose Merrill Anderson.) "Jon Gurban is not a complete surprise to three out of the four unless they were blind five years ago and didn't notice his name on the list with information about him," Fine said.

Hauser, then Board vice-president, said she did not talk to the four dissenting Commissioners prior to the Gurban vote. "I didn't think we had five votes for Jon Gurban until we were walking into the meeting," she said. "Without at least five votes, there was no reason to bring up his name."

Kummer said the four dissenting Commissioners "were not blindsided. They knew his name was in play. They knew it. That is why I was getting lobbied so hard against him," she said.

Mason said she talked to Kummer about Gurban the day before the vote at a holiday party at Mason's home. Kummer asked her about Gurban but didn't mention him as a potential superintendent candidate, Mason said.

Questioning credentials The Dec. 17 Board meeting quickly turned ugly.

After Dziedzic nominated Gurban, Erwin said it was "a terrible precedent. The public should be outraged."

Erwin said he did not know if Gurban met the minimum job qualifications. (The Board's formal job announcement listed as a qualification: "a strong academic background in parks and recreation or related fields, such as urban planning and/or management.")

Board leadership distributed Gurban's two-page resume at the meeting, but it had some gaps. Under education, for instance, it listed: "University of Manitoba, 1973" with no indication of the type or level of degree. The resume said Gurban had previous jobs leading park districts, most recently from 1988 to 1991 in Delta, a Vancouver suburb. It had more than 70 park and recreation sites and approximately 130 full-time equivalent employees, it said. He was also Apple Valley's director of parks from 1982 to 1987.

Hauser read verbatim from the resume. "I believe this is a strong candidate," she said.

Young complained Commissioners had no references or transcripts -- and Gurban had not had any management tests, background checks or psychological evaluations required of other finalists. It was only then that Kummer offered an amendment to make Gurban's hiring contingent on passing those tests and checks. (Gurban subsequently passed them.)

Mason and Berry Graves said they had personal concerns about Gurban, but Fine said Gurban "has tremendous respect of the employees of this Park Board. We look like a ship beginning to sink. We need someone who can right the ship."

Comments got personal, and Fine lost control of the meeting. Dziedzic tried to tell Berry Graves her comments were out of order, and she shot back angrily, "You are not the president, Commissioner Dziedzic."

After the Board voted, Bob MacGregor, an audience member and former City Councilmember, stood up and said in a loud voice, "I am disgusted."

Fine told MacGregor he was out of order.

Gurban said after the meeting his degree is in Physical Education and Recreation. Records staff at the University of Manitoba said he received a Bachelor of Physical Education with a minor in physical education and recreation in 1981. Gurban said he completed his coursework in 1973, as listed on his resume, didn't finish a thesis until 1978 or 1979. Lost paperwork further delayed the degree.

The road ahead -- and the first bump Gurban faces a daunting challenge leading a divided Board.

"I am not necessarily intimidated by a 5-4 vote," Gurban said. "Would I like to see a bigger spread? Yeah. More important, I would like to see some good discussion that really delves into the issues and everyone feels they get a chance to ask their questions."

The Board might consider hiring a consultant to help them deal with internal conflicts, he said. His own priorities include talking to staff and Commissioners -- all Commissioners, he emphasized -- about how to improve the park system, especially developing a master plan. "I am not intimidated by the size of the Minneapolis system," he said. "I am looking forward to it. It will be great challenge."

Gurban's first bump in the road came with the reports of the MRPA's pull-tab problems. The state pulled MRPA's charitable gambling license for two years in 1998. Gurban's board critics say it raises a red flag about his ability to manage.

According to Gambling Board staff, MRPA had insufficient oversight. It needed to have its own staff running the pull-tabs, hands-on. Instead, it contracted outside consultants. Compliance Officer Gary Danger said organizations cannot delegate or farm out operations. "They need to be actively engaged and participate," he said.

If the organization runs the operation, it has more incentive to limit expenses -- and get more pull-tab profits to the charity. In MRPA's case, its pull-tab expenses often exceeded state guidelines.

Gurban said there were no fines and no criminal charges. "There was no money missing," Gurban said. "All our audits with the lawful gaming people came through very well."

Most of the Board's Gurban-backers dismiss MRPA's charitable gambling problems. Olson said he found the whole thing "comical… It wasn't Jon Gurban that was investigated. It was MRPA and the firm that was overseeing their gambling operations," he said. "You are making a mountain out of a mole hill."

Kummer said at one point in her career, she worked as legislative staff on a committee overseeing charitable gambling. "I heard all kinds of things like this -- little VFWs in small towns, little groups, are always getting crosswise with the Gambling Board over some technicality they overlooked," she said. "I wasn't one bit disturbed [by MRPA's problem]."

Dziedzic -- who voted for Gurban -- called the pull-tab issue "fairly significant." He helped bring charitable gambling to some East Side bars, he said. Since the story surfaced, he has talked to friends in the industry. He went to the Gambling Control Board, paid his $6 and got a copy of the report, he said.

"The totality of it was -- had I known about it beforehand -- it might have changed my vote. Yes, I probably would have."