Analysis: parks superintendent vote was inside deal

Split board differs on leader, approves 2005 budget that pays off new headquarters

In the end, Cristopher Gears could not overcome the home court advantage.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted Dec. 8 to hire Interim Superintendent Jon Gurban as the permanent superintendent on a 6-3 vote, with Annie Young, Vivian Mason and Rochelle Berry Graves voting for Gears, the other finalist.

The Park Board gave Gurban a three-year contract for $112,200 plus car expenses. The deal runs through Dec. 31, 2007.

Several Commissioners said the candidates were similar in a number of ways. Gurban’s one-year tryout as superintendent tipped the scales.

Supporters such as Vice President John Erwin credit Gurban with improving staff morale, jump-starting a stalled master planning process and reorganizing staff, making it more efficient.

Commissioner Walt Dziedzic compared his vote for Gurban to votes he took on the City Council to save the Grain Belt Brewery and create City Center. "Gurban is everywhere," Dziedzic said.

Gurban created several staff committees: Go Teams to help reorganize, "Good Will Teams" to recommend facility improvements and personal safety teams. During his year, volunteers repainted the Lake Harriet Bandshell, and the very successful Tin Fish restaurant opened in the Lake Calhoun refectory.

Commissioner Marie Hauser said Gurban had worked on Minneapolis Park issues for a decade and knew the local political players. For her, that was a key factor.

From 1,000 miles away, Gears, who is Kitsap County, Washington’s parks and recreation facilities director, could not compete with such firsthand experience.

Some of Gurban’s detractors are still miffed he was hired the first time around. They called it "a back room deal," noting he didn’t apply for or interview for the job. When the Park Board’s two top finalists withdrew in December 2003, a slim 5-4 majority tabbed Gurban.

Some have questioned whether Gurban would have made the finalists’ list if he hadn’t had the tryout. Mason, who represents downtown and part of Southwest, disagreed that Gurban and Gears had similar credentials. She said Gurban’s park and recreation experience is old.

According to Gurban’s r/sum/, he managed recycling services for an unnamed regional paper company from 1991-1993. He next worked as executive director of Minnesota Recreation and Park Association. The resume gives no date nor does it list his management responsibilities. According to an earlier interview, he managed a staff of five and a six-figure budget.

Gears’ r/sum/ states that he held the Kitsap job in 1998-1999 and 2001-2004, overseeing 60 full-time employees, 160 part-time employees, a $5 million annual budget and a capital budget approaching $20 million. He also worked as director of Parks and Recreation for St. Louis Park (1988-1998) and Bremerton, Wash. (1999-2000).

Mason faults Gurban for not sharing information equally with Commissioners in the three-to-four person minority, including plans to reorganize Bryn Mawr Meadows fields and redevelop Parade Stadium — areas she represents.

Erwin delivered the vote’s only surprise, voting for Gurban in 2004 after voting against him in 2003.

Erwin reiterated that how Gurban was approved in 2003 "did a disservice to the institution of the Minneapolis Park Board." He said this time, Gurban was the better candidate, but in the coming years, he needed to "talk and collaborate with all commissioners."

The 2005 election

For an already divided board, Gurban’s 2003 hiring provided a flashpoint that could echo in 2005. All nine Park Board seats are up.

Several Commissioners spoke of the need to work more cooperatively. Commissioner Walt Dziedzic called for a board retreat to work on conflict resolution.

Mending fences could represent self-preservation.

The Star Tribune wrote a strong editorial Dec. 5 pushing a streamlined and more accountable city government. Its recommendations included eliminating the Park Board and turning park responsibilities over to a city department.

To the extent the Park Board divisions spill over and create public mistrust, such arguments only gain strength.

Budget divide

In other news, the Board approved its 2005 budget 8-1 Dec. 13, cutting $1 million from 2004 service levels, with Mason voting no.

The biggest cut, $400,000, was from hiring delays. The budget raises $75,000 in new fees, including aquatics and environmental and adult sports.

It cut services by $275,000, including environmental education programs, public relations, the Jump-In brochure, an archivist and historian. It will close warming houses earlier. It will cut Midtown Greenway and Coyle Center contributions.

The most controversial savings came from spending surplus reserves. Earlier austerity measures built a $6 million reserve — $3.5 million more than the required 5 percent ($2.5 million) reserve, staff said.

The Board voted to spend $4.5 million on various one-time projects. (The extra $1 million comes from a self-insurance fund loan.)

The Board will use approximately $3 million to pay off the mortgage on its riverfront headquarters, 2117 W. River Road N., purchased August 2002. Paying the mortgage would save $128,000 in 2005 and $256,000 a year thereafter in interest payments.

The Board also earmarked $1 million for diseased tree and stump removal and new planting, and $500,000 for an investment fund for new projects that raise revenue.

One possibility is $100,000 for a mini-golf course in Northeast, which staff estimated would generate $80,000 a year. A final decision was delayed until park staff recommends investments in March.

The Board split 5-4 on an initial budget vote Dec. 1, with several Commissioners saying the Board had not adequately discussed spending the surplus. A change Dec. 16 clarified that the Board would have to approve any investment fund project exceeding $50,000.