Park reform groups fail to capture board majority

Winners say they want a new era of collegiality

The nine-member Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has four new faces, and many are hopeful of a more civil tone and collaborative effort.

Mary Merrill Anderson, one of the new members, did the Park Board equivalent of hitting for the cycle. She started her career supervising a recreation center, worked her way up to superintendent and now won one of the three at-large Commissioner's seats.

&#8220I will work as hard as I can against this idea of factions within the Board,” she said in a postelection interview. &#8220That is what hurt the old Board. We can't afford that going forward.”

Some current Commissioners and citizen critics complained of poor Board process and backroom deals, including the hiring of Supt. Jon Gurban in 2003 when he had not applied for the job. The current Board majority attributes friction not to process but personality conflicts.

Typically low-profile races, several Park Board campaigns got heated. Reform groups Park Watch and Minneapolis Citizens for Park Board Reform pushed a candidate slate, a mix of incumbents and newcomers. A group called People for Independent Parks sprung up this fall to counter the reform groups' critiques and back its own slate.

Returning incumbents include Southwest's Bob Fine in District 6 and Carol Kummer in the South side's District 5. Both defeated reform-endorsed candidates. Fine beat Jim Bernstein 54 to 45 percent, and Kummer beat Jason Stone 51 to 49 percent. Had either challenger won, it would have tipped the Board's balance of power.

Fine, whose district includes Southwest south of Lake Street and West Calhoun, said the election results showed voters did not buy the park reform criticisms. &#8220The people like the park system,” he said. &#8220They like what we have been doing. They like the results.”

Bernstein's campaign received a blow Nov. 7, the day before the election. In response to a complaint from Fine, the state Office of Administrative Hearings fined the Bernstein campaign $800. A three-judge panel cited three instances wherein his campaign had made false statements, or ones &#8220with reckless disregard of whether they were false.”

The statements said Fine supported a $500,000 superintendent slush fund, did not support speedy removal of diseased Dutch elm diseased trees and failed to make Lake of the Isles improvements a priority.

&#8220I think it was really unfortunate the way I was treated by my opponent,” Fine said. &#8220I believe part of that comes from this park reform group, which I think is starting to get more and more discredited.”

Bernstein stands behind the campaign statements and said he would appeal the ruling to the Court of Appeals.

&#8220If you don't highlight your opponent's record there is no reason for people to vote for you,” he said. &#8220Was I overly aggressive? Maybe so, but there is no other way to run a campaign against a two-term incumbent.”

Michael Guest, who spearheaded Park Board Reform, said his group had an uphill battle running against incumbents but set the agenda.

&#8220We controlled the debate and the discussion throughout the election cycle,” he said. &#8220It revolved around more openness, more fiscal accountability and better stewardship of our parks. The message is clear that people want reform. They didn't necessarily embrace all of our candidates.”

New dynamics - or old?

The new members include Tracy Nordstrom in District 4, which stretches from the north half of the Chain of Lakes to downtown. It includes Loring Park, Stevens Square/Loring Heights, Bryn Mawr, Lowry Hill, Lowry Hill East, Whittier, East Isles, Kenwood, Cedar-Isles-Dean, East Calhoun and Harrison, most of Downtown West and Elliot Park, and parts of North Loop and Sumner Glenwood.

Nordstrom defeated banker Christine Hansen 58 to 41 percent. She was one of four winning candidates with reform group backing. Others were: Scott Vreeland in District 3, and at-large candidates Tom Nordyke, a newcomer, and Green Party candidate and incumbent Annie Young. (Vreeland also had backing from People for Independent Parks.)

Nordstrom said on election night that she would hold out an olive branch and ask Hansen to participate in a Citizen's Advisory Committee on improving ball fields. (Hansen, who coached her daughter's softball team, initially got into the race because of her concern about poor field conditions.)

Other returning incumbents are: Jon Olson, the current Board president, who represents District 1 on the North side and Walt Dziedzic, in District 2, Northeast. People for Independent Parks had backed Olson, Dziedzic, Vreeland, Kummer, Fine and Anderson.

&#8220I am looking forward to meeting with the new Commissioners, to get their thoughts on what they would like to get done in the coming years,” Olson said.

Nordyke said election night that his work with the reform groups had been an honest and good effort. &#8220It is time to build bridges,” he said.

Young said she was still processing the election results. &#8220I can't decide if everyone is happy with the status quo or people didn't like the negativity of the reform people,” she said.

She wanted to work on a unified Board but still thought the Board had communications and process problems. She is reading &#8220The 10 Symptoms of Dysfunctional Boards: Your Guide to Great Governance,” by Michael Sternberg.

&#8220I feel like I am going to be alone again. I am not going to change my position just so that we all get along,” she said. &#8220I still feel I am going to be the canary in the coal mine.”

Fine said the Board's membership changes would make drastic improvements in how the Board operates. &#8220We are losing a lot of people. That is going to change it automatically,” he said. &#8220I would rather not be quoted on personalities. I don't feel that is proper.”

Swing votes and leadership

Erwin was widely regarded as the swing vote on the current Board. Vreeland suggested Anderson could have that role.

&#8220Who will be president?” he asked. &#8220It will be interesting. Mary Merrill Anderson might have more power than she did as superintendent as a potential swing voter.”

Anderson rejected the label. &#8220The swing vote?” she said. &#8220I want to get away from this idea that there this a division on the Board. I think we all have different ideas and different strengths that we bring to the table.”

The Board votes on its president Jan. 2. The leadership vote will also affect committee assignments.

Asked if she would run for president, Anderson deflected the question with a laugh. &#8220I don't know,” she said. &#8220I think I want to spend some time being in conversation with all of the Board members.”

Asked if he would run for president again, Olson said he hadn't given it a lot of consideration.

Numerous Commissioners, including Anderson, have talked about the need to jumpstart a languishing Park Board master plan. Vreeland said its success would depend on collaboration.

&#8220We can't do a master plan on a 5-4 vote,” he said, saying the Board needed more unity than that.

The four members no longer on the Board are Rochelle Berry Graves, who lost in the at-large race; Marie Hauser, who ran for City Council and lost; and Erwin and Vivian Mason, who did not run.

Park Watch, a group that monitors Park Board meetings and posts information on a Web site will continue, said Arlene Fried, one of its founders. &#8220Our work is not done.”

The future of Park Reform, which organized to raise money for reform candidates, is unclear. &#8220I guess after a short respite, we will have to sit back and regroup and figure things out,” Guest said. &#8220I don't know.”