Park Board independence initiative headed to court

The initiative to make the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board a financially independent body is headed to court.

A citizens’ group representing a push to reshape the Park Board as a fully separate local governmental unit filed a lawsuit Aug. 28 against the city of Minneapolis, after the City Council voted 11-2 not to place a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. The group recently completed a petition drive — gathering 17,046 signatures, of which at least 10,449 were certified — and the issue appeared headed to voters this fall.

But deputy city attorney Peter Ginder told the council that the group’s question could be unconstitutional. It’s not legal, he said, for one local government to create another.

In a 10-page memorandum, Ginder wrote that the petition could be rejected because the issue is preempted by state law and conflicts with state public policy. Furthermore, if the referendum were approved in November, the Park Board would still have to wait until the next legislative session before finding out exactly how their new body of government would operate.

“As the board sits today, they don’t know what they’re creating,” Ginder said.

Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said several times before the council’s vote that its decision wasn’t going to be about the content of the petition’s question.

“The question before us is a matter of law,” Hodges said during an emotionally charged meeting. “It’s about law. … We’ve been told in no uncertain terms by our attorney that this is unlawful.”

The petitioners, represented by a citizen group calling itself Citizens for Independent Parks, quickly shot back, promptly filing a lawsuit against the city. They are hoping a Hennepin County District Court will hear their case and rule quickly so the issue can still get before voters this fall. The deadline to get a question on the ballot is Sept. 11.

Former City Council Member Pat Scott, one of the faces of the petition effort, said the council’s decision was disappointing but not surprising.

“It’s unfortunate Pandora’s box was opened,” she said. “But it was opened by them.”

Council members Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) and Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) dissented from the council’s vote.