Park Board question not headed for voters

Voters will not weigh in on the status of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board this November, after a judge ruled a proposed amendment to the city charter is unconstitutional.

A citizens’ group had tried to get a referendum on this fall’s ballot to increase the financial independence of the Park Board, collecting more than 17,000 signatures for a petition. But the initiative was rejected last month by the City Council, which voted 11-2 to keep it from voters after a city attorney said the question could be unconstitutional.

The group, Citizens for Independent Parks, promptly sued, hoping to force the issue onto the ballot by a Sept. 11 deadline. After a heavily sped-up legal process, the Citizens got their answer in time — but it wasn’t what they’d hoped for.

In a decision released Sept. 10, Hennepin County District Judge Cara Lee Neville sided with many of the city attorney’s arguments. Her ruling largely came down to one issue: How separate and new of a governmental unit would the Park Board become?

The charter amendment, as presented by the Citizens, would deem the Park Board “a separate and independent governmental unit of the state of Minnesota.” But asking the city charter to create a new independent governmental unit is beyond its powers, Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder argued.

During a Sept. 3 hearing, petitioners’ attorney Fred Morrison said the city had read too much into something that actually came down to semantics. What the amendment would really do, Morrison said, is expand the Park Board’s authority within its current semi-independent, within-the-city position. It would be a reinforcement, he said, not the creation of something completely new.

Neville disagreed.

“The language of the petition which was circulated clearly states the intent of the proposed amendment is to create a ‘separate and independent governmental unit of the State of Minnesota,’” she said in a memorandum. “Only the legislature however has the constitutional authority to create a ‘state governmental unit.’”

Neville said city charters can make changes to city departments, but this seemed to go beyond that.

Furthermore, she said, the changes the Park Board wants — commissioners have said they’d like to model themselves after the Three Rivers Park District — would need approval from the Legislature, even if the charter amendment were approved. That concern was similarly raised by the city’s Ginder, who said that what people would have voted on was “an unknown future lobbying effort.”

Morrison had tried to argue that there were other parts of the amendment that would have an immediate impact, such as proclaiming that the Park Board will protect the city’s green space “as a public trust forever.” But Neville said the main intent of the amendment appeared to be the expansion of the board’s independence, and that couldn’t be done without state involvement.

“The proper entity to create another state governmental unit is the legislature,” she wrote.

Following Neville’s decision, the Citizens said through a news release that they would appeal. Attorney Brian Rice, who represents the group alongside Morrison, said the goal no longer is to get the question on the ballot this year. That deadline has passed. But he said the compressed time period for Neville to make a decision — it took just 13 days from the lawsuit’s filing to the judge’s memorandum — might have played a role in the outcome.

“It just seems like these are very serious issues. Rather than deal with them on an emergency basis, it’s better to let the court system really go to work on it,” said Rice, who also is the Park Board’s attorney.

The main issue that he said he hopes the courts will look at is who actually has the right to make changes to local governments’ structures. It’s possible, Rice said, that under the city’s arguments a referendum that is set to appear on the November ballot — whether to replace the membership of the tax levy-setting Board of Estimate and Taxation with the 13 City Council members — also could be unconstitutional.

If appeals go as high as the state Supreme Court, it could take years for a final decision to be made. While that ends the immediate quest for more Park Board independence — President Tom Nordyke said the board likely won’t approach the Legislature for such changes next year — it’s also too long to wait for the board and the City Council to begin mending its relationship, Nordyke said. Both sides have been bruised by a year filled with wrangling over the Park Board’s existence.

“The relationships on all sides have been pushed to extreme limits,” Nordyke said. “It’s pretty hard to see a way back to (a comfortable working relationship). But hey, it’s politics.”