Parks superintendent search squeezed

Adding to the pressure: persistent Park Board divisions

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is behind schedule on its superintendent search and is trying to catch up.

Earlier this summer, the Park Board hired the Oldani Group to conduct the search. It is the same firm the city of Minneapolis used earlier this year to hire Police Chief William McManus.

Park Board President Jon Olson called the search schedule "a tight squeeze."

"It took us awhile to find the search firm, so therefore we crunched time a little bit," he said. "We will get it straightened out and move the process along as quickly as possible."

Mary Page, the Park Board’s human resources director, is the staff point person on the search. Interim Supt. Jon Gurban is not involved because he is a potential candidate, she said. The application deadline is Oct. 8. The Park Board expects to make a final decision by late November, with a Jan. 1 start date, she said.

The Park Board had planned to hold a mid-October public forum with finalists, Olson said. That will probably be pushed back since finalists won’t be named by then.

The Park Board was scheduled to discuss the search process at its Sept. 5 meeting, after the Southwest Journal’s deadline.

Last year, the Park Board hired the Illinois Association of Park Districts to find potential replacements for retiring Supt. Mary Merrill Anderson. That search imploded when the two top candidates withdrew.

A thin five-of-nine Commissioner majority voted to hire Gurban to a one-year contract. Gurban had neither applied for, nor interviewed for, the job. Several in the four-Commissioner minority charged their colleagues with backroom deals. Some residents also sharply criticized the process.

Commissioner John Erwin, who did not vote for Gurban’s contract, chaired the committee that created the new search process. The Park Board is three weeks behind its initial timeline, he said.

"I am happy we have a search firm that has a lot of experience in dealing with a search of this size," he said. "I am not discouraged in any way."

Andrea Battle Sims of the Oldani Group spoke to the Park Board Aug. 4. Her organization had already begun calling potential applicants, she said.

In the hot seat

Gurban’s selection last December underscored deep Park Board divisions. The question now is, can a board marked by years of bad blood create something resembling consensus as it tries to choose a permanent leader?

Gurban will likely be a flash point.

The Park Board invited people to comment on the qualifications for the next superintendent. A dozen people spoke at the Aug. 4 board meeting. Dan Forby, a Jim Lupient Water Park board member, said he had "warm fuzzies" for the current Park Board leadership. However, former 10th Ward City Councilmember Lisa McDonald — a potential 2005 Park Board candidate — sent a strongly worded letter urging the Park Board to take Gurban off its list of potential candidates.

"Many qualified candidates would be deterred from spending the time and effort to apply if they knew there was an inside track candidate being considered who had served as interim superintendent for one year," wrote McDonald.

Several speakers echoed her comments.

Olson said in an interview McDonald’s proposal was discriminatory. "Last time I checked, we are government," he said. "I thought it was illegal to prohibit people from applying for a job."

Commissioner Walt Dziedzic, who praised Gurban’s work, said after the meeting he thought McDonald’s letter was "terrible" and "just nasty."

Despite his interim title, Gurban has taken an active role since getting hired.

He has overseen a major staff reorganization and pushed plans to change the mix at Bryn Mawr Meadows/Parade athletic complex, a potentially controversial move. He is talking to Minneapolis Library Director Kit Hadley about ways to promote reading in park recreation centers next year.

"I was hired on this one-year contract to perform the duties of a superintendent," said Gurban, about the Bryn Mawr plans. "I am making the decisions — not based on whether I will be there or not [in the future] — but based on the fact that I believe they are the best decisions for the Park Board."

Commissioner Vivian Mason, often at odds with Board leadership, has complained about being left out of the loop on Bryn Mawr Meadows. Staff began designing major changes to the area — which she represents — without notifying her, she said. It paid consultants $10,000 from a preplanning fund Mason said she did not know existed.

Mason questioned spending money on plans that might not have Board support, while the Park Board had any number of pressing operational needs.

Board Vice President Erwin said he, too, was surprised to learn of the preplanning fund and has asked for information on other discretionary funds. He said staff should have brought the Bryn Mawr plan to Mason, and to the rest of the Board, before staff spent money.

Olson defended the staff process. He said he did not know in advance about the Bryn Mawr Meadows design work and he didn’t have a problem with it.

"We are a policy board," he said.

"We don’t run the daily operations of the system."

Board members need to take initiative to find out about ongoing projects, Olson said. He added that some of his Board colleagues did not treat staff professionally. In the previous administration, some staff got treated "despicably at times," Olson said.

On the staff reorganization, Commissioner Annie Young expressed her "deep concern" in early August that Gurban had not informed the Board. She questioned making significant changes with a superintendent search underway.

Young asked for and received an update at the Aug. 18 meeting. Board members gave the reorganization plan overwhelming support.

The old system had different district boundaries for recreation, police, forestry and maintenance, which confused residents, Gurban said. Under the new model, the parks have three uniform districts, so residents could call one district manager with a problem, whether it concerned safety, recreation or forestry.

Gurban said the reorganization had two goals: Getting more resources to neighborhoods and allowing staff to tailor programs to neighborhood needs, decentralizing the system. For instance, different recreation centers hours may want to offer different hours, he said.

Can the Board get beyond a 5-4 split on the next superintendent?

"We will see what happens," Olson said. "I am willing to work with folks. I think we have come together on a lot of important votes. … It is a big myth that it is a 5-4 split."