Park Board tables wireless issue, promises its moving ahead

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is moving forward on allowing the installation of 41 wireless Internet nodes in and around its parks, even if its action on Wednesday night — a vote to table the issue — appeared to be a delay in the process.

The city had expected the Park Board to vote on directing staff to move ahead with working out conditions of an agreement with provider USI Wireless. The board in December delayed such a motion after feeling the issue had been sprung upon them at the last second.

Despite the city’s wireless network having been in the works for years, Park Board commissioners had never been an official part of the process. Before December, they had never been asked for official installation permission.

Commissioners’ response then was that they wanted time to digest the idea of wireless nodes in the parks; their own concerns included impacts on the parks’ aesthetic and historical qualities. They also wanted public input before moving ahead.

In later conversations with several neighborhood groups, as well as interactions with City Council members, city staff and USI CEO Joe Caldwell, commissioners saw widespread approval.

“I’m reasonably convinced that my constituents are pretty in support of this,” Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said on Wednesday, adding that she herself was a bit surprised.

Nordstrom introduced a motion to move ahead, a last-minute addition to Wednesday’s agenda. But parks Superintendent Jon Gurban said he and staff had not had enough time to look over the agreement with USI; staff, he said, needed more time to work out exact conditions.

There are outlying issues, Gurban said, that he wasn’t sure were addressed. For example, he asked, whose responsibility do the nodes become if the technology turns out to be obsolete in 10 years?

“I don’t know if we have that yet,” he said.

In response, the board quickly voted 7-1 to table the issue until its next meeting, set for March 4. President Tom Nordyke was the only “no” vote, while Commissioner Annie Young was absent.

Commissioner Scott Vreeland said the tabling does not mean Park Board staff will drop the wireless issue until next month. “I think we are actively working on this,” he said.

Still, Lynn Willenbring, the city’s chief information officer, was visibly upset at the board’s decision. “That’s not what I had been led to believe by President Nordyke,” Willenbring told the Southwest Journal afterward.

She said she was especially taken aback at the implication that Park Board staff had not seen the contract until just before the meeting. It has been with the board since December, when the city first approached the parks about the nodes, she said.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said she also was surprised at the tabling but added, “I guess they didn’t say no.”

A tabling, she said, doesn’t mean the Park Board won’t eventually approve wireless in the parks. It’s more that parks staff needs to make sure it has all of its questions answered before signing a contract, something she said she could appreciate.

To avoid another tabling, Glidden said the city will need to make sure it answers any outlying questions the Park Board still has in the next two weeks. She’s hopeful, she said, that it will get approved.

“It’s time to move forward,” she said.

All holes in the city’s wireless network are set to be filled this spring, Willenbring added, save for those created by a lack of nodes in parks.

(Note: This story has been revised from an earlier posting.)