With hearing over, ruling on Park Board initiatives fate expected next week

Voters likely will know next week whether they’ll get to weigh in on the expansion of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s financial independence, according to an attorney close to the initiative.

Brian Rice on Aug. 28 filed a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis on behalf of a citizens’ group after the City Council voted 11-2 to not place on the fall election ballot a question regarding the Park Board’s autonomy. The council cited a city attorney’s opinion that the question would be unconstitutional and could therefore be rejected, despite the collection of more than 10,449 petition signatures.

Rice and attorney Fred Morrison are hoping a Hennepin County District Court will overturn the council’s decision and that the question will still get on the ballot. By state law, all ballot changes need to be in by Sept. 11. That means an extremely expedited process, which began with a hearing today — just six days after the lawsuit was filed.

During an hour-long court session, Hennepin County District Judge Cara Lee Neville heard arguments from both sides. Much focus was put on whether the Park Board would remain a part of the city’s structure or become something completely different.

Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder argued that, currently, the Park Board is technically a city department.

While the parks have been overseen by a state-created independent board since 1883, the city charter refers to it as a department. Charter cities such as Minneapolis, Ginder argued, can’t create wholly new local government from its own departments, and that’s why he views the question — which calls for the Park Board to become a “separate and independent governmental unit of the State” — as unconstitutional. If that weren’t the case, he said, there could be petitions all over Minnesota requesting cities’ departments’ become independent.

But Morrison said the city was putting too much focus on semantics. Regardless of the title “department,” the Park Board has always operated under an independent board and already has near-complete control of any actions related to the parks — unlike, for example, the Public Works Department. The ballot question would simply expand on those separate actions, Morrison said.

Ginder replied that the initiative would create a governmental body that needs state action to go into complete effect — if the initiative were to pass, the Park Board would need to go to the Legislature to have its bonding and tax authorities officially set up — and therefore wouldn’t really be much of a city body anymore. It would be a “hybrid creature,” Ginder said.

“It becomes a very strange beast, and you can’t tell what it is,” he said.

At the hearing’s end, Neville said she would do her best to have a ruling in as quickly as possible. Rice said he expects an answer early next week.

The ballot question

Supporters of an initiative to give the Park Board more control over its finances are hoping to get this question on the Nov. 3 ballot:

“Should the City of Minneapolis adopt a change in its city charter to establish the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as a separate and independent governmental unit of the State with an elected board of commissioners for the purpose of preserving and protecting park land, lakes and open spaces as a public trust forever, with all the powers and rights of an independent governmental unit as determined by the state legislature, and with actions of the board subject to the powers and duties of the Mayor?”