Parks update

Public will get chances for input on proposed Park Board elimination

The discussion about eliminating the independent Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board — as well as changing the city’s governing structure and get rid of the Board of Estimate and Taxation — is coming to the people.

The Charter Commission on March 4 voted a decisive 9-1 to hold four public hearings on three proposals from a trio of City Council members who say they want to make the city structure more efficient.

A packed, standing room–only crowd tried hard to prevent the vote’s outcome, with almost 30 speakers coming forward to talk up the importance of keeping the parks a top priority. Under city control, they said, it wouldn’t be the same.

"What’s to stop the city from condo-izing our lakes?" Uptown resident Harry Savage said. "It’s always a possibility when you give them that power."

Park Board Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson said public hearings on keeping an independent board already have been held. It was one of the questions residents were asked as the board was putting together its comprehensive plan, she said.

"I think our citizens have spoken — over and over again," she said.

Only a handful of speakers came out in support of holding a public process, including two of the council members making the proposals, Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) and Ralph Remington (10th Ward). Former Star Tribune reporter Martha Allen spoke about how city leaders used to complain to her how tedious it was to have to report to 14 bosses, the mayor and all 13 City Council members. (One of the proposed changes is to install a city administrator who acts as a single boss.)

But City Council President Barb Johnson (4th Ward) warned about the timing of the proposal, which comes in the middle of growing budget pressures on the city. It’s just plain off, she said.

"I really have found this to be a huge distraction," Johnson said.

The majority of Charter Commission members present ultimately said they didn’t want to stop the conversation in their chambers. This needs to be aired out, they said.

The sole "no" vote came from Jana Metge. "I don’t believe in wasting people’s time," she said.

At a later regularly scheduled Park Board meeting, President Tom Nordyke fumed. This is going to be unnecessary, he said — and expensive.

"I’ve rarely been that offended by a group of public officials in my time in public life," Nordyke said.

Nordstrom tires of politicking, ends reelection run

Park Board Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom has changed her mind: She will not seek a second term in office.

"I have a choice for 2009: Either I spend my time campaigning to keep the job I have, or I can simply, and diligently, do the work I love," Nordstrom said in a statement in early March to the Park Board. "… I choose to serve the constituents who elected me, until my term ends."

This came a month after telling the Southwest Journal she’d "come to really love the job. As all politicians say, there is still work to be done." But she ultimately decided she was no longer interested in the politicking of campaigning. In an e-mail, she said it was a difficult decision to make but that she looks forward to returning to a quieter life.

"I will then have the time to enjoy our parks every day as a patron and parent," she said.

Lowry Hill board member, parks watchdog seeks Nordstrom’s seat

The end of Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom’s reelection bid leaves a single candidate in the mix.

Anita Tabb, a sometimes outspoken critic of Park Board transparency, announced in late February that she is seeking the 4th District seat. After attending "almost 90 percent" of board meetings over the past two years as a constituent, she said now seemed like a good time to get involved.

"I’m just at the point in my life where I have the time to do this," Tabb said.

She’s no stranger to Park Board issues. When complaints rolled in about parks staff’s communication with commissioners over plans at Parade Stadium, Tabb was one of the main voices. Most recently, she spoke out at a board meeting about the lack of citizen input on the Lake Calhoun south shore parking lot project.

Tabb is a 5-year resident of Lowry Hill and, according to her website, has been an activist for equal rights, women’s rights and the environment. Recently asked by the Hill and Lake Press about the proposal to eliminate the independent Park Board, she said she welcomed the debate.

"The result, whatever it is, will provide citizens with a stronger foundation going forward," Tabb said. "That being said, I don’t think that we would even be having this discussion if many of the transparency and public process issues didn’t exist."

Parks update

Pitch for Crown Hydro moves to Legislature

Crown Hydro is back.

An effort to get the often-contentious project off the ground has moved to St. Paul, where legislators have introduced a bill that would essentially give the project’s backers the right to move ahead without getting approval from the site’s landowners, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

For newcomers to Crown Hydro, it’s a proposed underground hydroelectric power plant that would produce energy from St. Anthony Falls. The idea has been floating around since 1991 and picked up occasional steam with a Park Board agreement in 1998, a federal license in 1999 and study proposals in years after.

It also has been known to attract controversy.

While its proponents argue the plant won’t produce any noticeable noise or vibrations, nearby neighbors fought hard to stop the Park Board from moving forward. There is contention over the historical value of the Falls — largely manmade after years of industrial use — and the way a power plant would blend in with the now-developed riverside. Opposition came from as high as former Vice President Walter Mondale, who strongly urged the Park Board to not move forward.

The board didn’t. In December 2007, commissioners voted 5-4 against proceeding.

Since then, Crown Hydro’s backers have taken their message directly to citizens, going on a mass educational tour to win people over, spokeswoman Nikki Carlson said. Supporters now range from high school students to senators.

Getting the Park Board on their side — that’s no longer a chief goal. Carlson said a deliberate decision was made to go to the Legislature instead because, after all, energy production isn’t traditionally a Park Board venture.

The board’s response so far has been mixed. Commissioners have been receiving updates from Carlson, but they’re not yet united on what to think about the legislation. Their lawyer, however, is clear: The bill isn’t appropriate.

"The Park Board has a 126-year history of getting it right," said Brian Rice, who also works as a Park Board lobbyist. "[The Legislature] is the wrong forum."

Carlson said today’s economy and new president make this the time for Crown Hydro to be built. Making use of a renewable energy is the right thing to do, she said, much like the state Legislature’s decision in 1883 to go around the Minneapolis City Council to create an independent Park Board was the right thing to do.

Wireless discussions move ahead; vote now expected on April 1

Although it appears likely that the Park Board eventually will vote to allow the installation of 41 wireless Internet nodes on parkland, it also appears likely they won’t do so until at least next month.

At the Feb. 18 board meeting, commissioners said that — much to their own surprise — residents had expressed mostly interest in allowing the nodes. Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom proposed a staff direction to move ahead with formalizing an agreement with provider USI Wireless and the city of Minneapolis.

"I’m reasonably convinced that my constituents are pretty in support of this," Nordstrom said at the meeting.

That proposal ended up tabled, with other commissioners and staff members citing concerns over the number of unanswered questions. General Manager Michael Schmidt said the Park Board wants several qualifications within any agreement, including having the football-sized nodes painted the color of their respective poles and not allowing the installation of any more temporary poles.

At least one meeting has been held between Park Board, city and USI staff since Feb. 18, one that was predominantly positive, Schmidt said.

"There are things we are in agreement on," he said. "There are other things that we need to have some other conversations on."

A wireless vote probably won’t come before commissioners until at least April 1.

City budget cuts don’t mean revision for parks

A quick scan of Mayor R.T. Rybak’s proposed re-do of the 2009 city budget shows a 2 percent decrease in the amount of money allocated to the Park Board, or about $2 million. Does that mean an unforeseen drop in service?

No, the Park Board says.

That’s because during preparations for their own 2009 budget, steps were taken in anticipation of cuts from the state. The parks set aside $774,000 in Local Government Aid and left a couple dozen vacant positions unfilled.

"It’s been pretty apparent [the state’s budget deficit] was coming," General Manager Don Siggelkow has said. "We didn’t play games. We’ve tried to prepare."

As Rybak’s budget proposal goes on to explain, leaving those positions vacant does account for an almost 5 percent drop in the Park Board’s work force and likely will translate to reduced park maintenance, longer tree-trimming cycles and less recreation programming.