City, Park Board clashover Wi-Fi installations
At their last meeting of 2008, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board came within a roll call of preventing Minneapolis’ wireless Internet project from going citywide. While they ultimately didn’t do so that night, commissioners still could stop it.
More than 2,000 wireless nodes have been popping up around the city over the past two years, ever since the City Council approved an agreement with U.S. Wireless to bring affordable wireless Internet to Minneapolis. Installation started in Downtown and has been slowly expanding to other parts of the city. The ultimate goal is to blanket Minneapolis entirely with wireless service.
While partly to expand affordable Internet options, the project’s goal also is to eventually use Wi-Fi for emergency services. Police and fire departments, for example, would use it for dispatch purposes.
The project appeared to be sailing smoothly until October, when Park Board staff noticed several nodes had been installed around Lake of the Isles. Parkland is not the city’s, and the Park Board would have had to give approval for the installations. According to meeting documents, the city never approached the board.
After the discovery, the board asked the city to remove the nodes; the city said there were no alternatives that would prevent a hole in the wireless network. The board threatened legal action; the city sent a representative, Chief Information Officer Lynn Willenbring, to the board’s Dec. 17 meeting for a presentation and an attempt to talk the parks system into entering into its own contract with U.S. Wireless.
The response was far from warm.
Commissioners expressed concerns about the size of the nodes, the number that would have to be installed — more than 40 on parkland — the negative impact they would have on aesthetics, and the potential of affecting the Grand Rounds’ historical status as a scenic byway. Commissioner Scott Vreeland questioned how good service would be when surrounding trees are filled with leaves.
"I don’t appreciate … this 11th-hour ‘Oh, please please please,’" Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said. "This is not good government."
Willenbring, in response, apologized for the city never having contacted the parks. But she also said it would be a problem if the wireless network is limited. Emergency services, in particular, will need the network, she said.
Only one commissioner, Walt Dziedzic, showed support for the project, mostly in hopes that the Park Board could get some leverage with the city on future projects. Commissioner Bob Fine, on the other hand, proposed the Park Board ban the nodes from parkland.
"I don’t find it acceptable," Fine said. "… It may be nice to get wireless, but there has to be some sort of alternative."
The board ultimately voted to table the issue and discuss it further at a later date. In the meantime, the already installed nodes will stay standing.
Stop-gap budget gets unanimous approval
The Park Board unanimously approved its 2009 budget at a special Dec. 11 meeting.
The budget is largely seen as a stop gap, one that focuses on keeping down spending while raising as few fees as possible. More than a dozen unfilled staff positions will stay that way until at least halfway through 2009 — longer if predictions about the state slashing Local Government Aid funding hold true.
General Manager Don Siggelkow said this isn’t a way to improve parks service, but at least it keeps the parks prepared for another year in a sour economy.
"It’s been pretty apparent [the state’s budget deficit] was coming," Siggelkow said. "We didn’t play games. We’ve tried to prepare."
Board grants one-year beverage contract extension
The board unanimously approved a one-year extension to its five-year-old contract with Coca Cola to provide pop in the parks.
General Manager Don Siggelkow said he’d originally planned on holding a bidding process to vet other possible vendors for a new five-year contract, but several commissioners said they wanted to have a longer discussion about pop’s presence in the system. Despite personal reservations about the usefulness of such a discussion, Siggelkow said he created the one-year extension to give the commissioners time.
Before the vote, Commissioner Annie Young reiterated her support of tackling the issue.
"It’s something we’re going to have to discuss," she has said.
Commissioners: Superintendent a strong leader for staff
Most of the Park Board’s commissioners feel the head of the park system’s staff, Superintendent Jon Gurban, has strong leadership skills and shows a lot of passion for the parks system. But they also feel a need to improve staff’s communications with the board.
Those were some of the highlights from a recently completed evaluation of Gurban’s duties. Released on Dec. 3, comments remained anonymous. But three commissioners are listed as saying board relations to staff are below expectations, and one commissioner said the superintendent’s overall performance needs improvement.
At the same time, Gurban received high marks for developing and following the Park Board’s Comprehensive Plan, for creating dynamic parks and keeping the parks safe. One commissioner said his performance is consistently superior.