A 126-year-old sore spot

With the proposal to eliminate the Park Board, out pours a history of contention

Paul Ostrow has hit a nerve, and he’s hit it hard.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board feels it has been personally attacked. The independent board that owns and oversees the city’s green space, the board that’s been around for 126 years without being stopped, is again being recommended for elimination.

Ostrow, the City Council representative to the 1st Ward, says it’s for efficiency purposes that he’s suggesting a change in the city’s charter. These are lean economic times. Not a time for many layers of government with two police departments and two planning departments.

If you didn’t know it, the Park Board is not ruled by the council.

That’s not the Southwest Journal trying to play you as dumb. That’s stating a fact that many in the city’s leadership say some constituents still don’t know. When some people see a problem in Minneapolis’ parks, they don’t call their commissioner — they call their council member.

That leads to a "sorry, you called the wrong person" confrontation no politician likes, and it doesn’t lead to a quicker resolution to the problem.

That’s what Ostrow believes. He’s not alone. Believe it or not, he has supporters both alive and dead.

His argument has been around for 126 years. As long as the Park Board.

As chronicled in David C. Smith’s "City of Parks," an expansive history of the Park Board, Minneapolis’ parks were born out of jealousy — or at least awe — toward East and West Coast cities. The city’s first and third mayor, Dorilus Morrison, wanted it to establish its greatness by creating green space.

There was interest from some on the City Council, but members repeatedly failed to follow through. In 1883, the Council instead passed a resolution that said Minneapolis was "more in need of effective sewers, a city hospital, water works extended to the city limits, bridges built over railroads, etc., than she [was] in need of spending money around Lake Calhoun." At that time, there were about four parks in all of Minneapolis.

It was out of opinions such as that one that park supporters decided to circumvent city leadership and go to the state Legislature instead. A bill to create a separately elected Park Board didn’t take long to find support: By Feb. 27, 1883, Gov. Lucius Hubbard signed it into law.

A later voter referendum succeeded by 58 percent, unexpected to such opponents as then-Mayor Alfred Ames.

From the start, the board was able by law to acquire, improve and maintain park land, issue city bonds, condemn land and raise park funds through a tax levy without City Council oversight, according to Smith’s book. That didn’t make it a friend to the city’s ruling hierarchy.

With its own control and own pockets of money, the Park Board went on to buy up land, create such public spaces as Loring Park, dredge land around Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, and envision a city-surrounding Grand Rounds.

In the meantime, there were repeated attempts to eliminate the board.

Mary Merill Anderson, the board’s current vice president, has been with the parks system most years since 1972. She remembers times both good and bad between the city and the parks. The best days included close work with former Mayor Sharon Sayles Benton on so-called "service redesign," where the parks took on caring for all of Minneapolis’ green space while the city took on all roads and parkways. The worse — or the worst — came in 1996, when then-City Council Steve Minn proposed the elimination of the independent Park Board and bring it under the city’s wing.

Minn’s idea was born from criticisms over the parks leaving grass untrimmed and closing ice rinks. He also cited doubled-up departments — that there was too much duplication of services.

That motion ended up dead on arrival, receiving a unanimous "no" vote from the Charter Commission. But, much like Ostrow today, Minn hit a nerve.

There were some in the city who felt there were too many layers of government. When people complain about problems in the parks, they often call the City Council, Minn said at the time, but the Council can’t do anything but tell constituents to call the Park Board.

The park system’s response has always been the same: that it’s not an easy relationship, but that by being an independent body focused solely on parks, it has been able to provide the necessary attention to give Minneapolis’ green space the reputation it has today. Under city control, park commissioners argue, the parks would become one of many responsibilities, rarely the No. 1. The Park Board frequently has refused to sell land, despite some on the City Council suggesting they do so to raise one-time money, park commissioners say. At the state capitol, the Park Board has its own lobbyists who fight solely for them.

"The city has its own reputation," lobbyist Maryann Campo said. "And the Park Board has its own reputation."

Ostrow’s ideas don’t yet have enough support on his own public body, which partly led him to send them to the Charter Commission first, rather than have the City Council battle it out. He currently awaits a hearing. In the meantime, he’s opened a scab.

At the Park Board’s Feb. 4 meeting, many spoke passionately about the importance of the board staying alive. Some yelled. Some ranted. Others were eloquent.

"It hasn’t always been easy and pretty," an emotional Merill Anderson shouted, "but it means that we have a great city."

Five minutes later, she wiped tears from her eyes. For a moment, the room was dead silent.

"Can we get an amen?" Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom finally cut through.

Applause poured out.