PARK BOARD AT LARGE CANDIDATE FORUM // voters guide 2009

On Oct. 20, seven of the eight people seeking the three at-large Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board seats — Mary Merrill Anderson, John Butler, John Erwin, Bob Fine, Tom Nordyke, David Wahlstedt and Annie Young — took part in a candidate forum. Here are some highlights.

On what they consider the parks’ biggest issues: Most candidates noted that the top issues are infrastructure and finance. Erwin said it’s time for the Park Board to invest in grant writers — currently it only has half a grant writer, he said; he wants three — while Nordyke said the board has had some recent success getting money from the federal government. Fine agreed that revenue is a big problem. “There’s only so much we can continue to cut,” he said. Wahlstedt noted the Park Board’s independence as a top priority, while Merrill Anderson cited the neighborhood parks system as needing help. Young said that, on top of those issues, the Park Board needs to be concerned about the tree-destroying emerald ash borer, as well as improving its communication skills with communities. Butler said that because he’s new to Park Board politics, he’s not sure what the biggest issues are. Maybe clean up Minnehaha Creek while the falls are dry, he said.

On managing the Park Board without further property tax increases: Butler recommended starting a big volunteer drive. Wahlstedt said the parks system’s recreation centers should each be considered as sites for revenue generation. If Tin Fish and Sea Salt Seafood Eatery can produce money on public land, then there are probably more opportunities out there, he said. Furthermore, the Park Board should consider generating power at St. Anthony Falls, Wahlstedt said, whether that’s with controversial group Crown Hydro or not. Erwin reiterated his interest in grant writers, as well as putting more focus on seeking donations. The Minneapolis Parks Foundation has been underutilized, he said. Young said the parks need to try hard to get off the grid energy-wise, while Nordyke said that if the Park Board puts efforts into rebuilding the system’s infrastructure, it should do so with sustainability in mind. Fine said that asking the Park Board to continue managing itself without further tax increases is a loaded question. “To say we can’t raise taxes, that’s going to be difficult.” The alternative is cutting services, he said. Merrill Anderson, who said annual property tax increases are not sustainable, noted that the Park Board already has been operating under smaller tax increases than the city’s.

On watchdog group Park Watch: Fine said he’s never seen the group do a positive, productive thing. But most others disagreed. The Park Board is a public body, they said, and therefore should be open to public scrutiny. Nordyke said personal emotions shouldn’t matter; public bodies are legally obligated to be transparent. Fine said Park Watch’s frequent data practices requests are costing money and labor; Erwin said that if the Park Board were transparent to begin with, those costs would never have had to occur. Butler said he’d never heard of Park Watch.

On recreation centers: Most candidates said that, despite the economy, they would not want to see recreation centers close. Merrill Anderson, Young and Nordyke noted the Park Board’s comprehensive plan’s idea of community-service areas, where certain centers offer specialized services that fit with the community’s needs. That might lead to fewer hours at some centers, Merrill Anderson said, but it would not lead to any of them closing. Nordyke said the board might have to be open to letting some centers become specialized sites for arts or similar nonprofit organizations. Wahlstedt said the centers should be looked at hard as revenue generators. Fine said his preference is to not close any recreation centers, but he also said he’d be worried about allowing groups to take them over. After a lease or agreement is up, it could be hard to get the center back, he said. Erwin said centers can’t be closed — and their hours should be boosted, not shrunk, he said. Butler said some centers might have to be consolidated if they don’t see much use.

On the proposed membership changes of the Board of Estimate and Taxation: All but one candidate said they flat out oppose the ballot question. Only Butler was hesitant to give a yes or no answer, citing a lack of knowledge about the issue. (He did say he was not happy about the library board’s dissolution.) At least five of the candidates said they support adding a member to the taxation board so that two City Council members and the mayor don’t make up half the board. Erwin and Merrill Anderson said that extra person should be another separately elected official; Young agreed but added that she’d also support having an extra Park Board representative at the table. “If we’re going to do anything [to the taxation board], we need a seventh member,” Fine said. Wahlstedt took it a step further, proposing the addition of three more separately elected people to the board to make it a nine-member body with a public representatives majority. Then it would really be able to act as checks-and-balances body, he said. Nordyke said he doesn’t like the idea of the City Council becoming the taxation board. Currently, it consists of six financially focused members whom Nordyke termed the “smartest people in the room.” If the council were to become the taxation board, all that would be needed to set a maximum tax levy is a simple majority — meaning that the smart people wouldn’t necessarily prevail, he said.

On whether to retain Superintendent Jon Gurban: Fine said he doesn’t understand why people would want a change at the top. People love Minneapolis’ parks, and Gurban is responsible for a lot of that, he said. Letting someone go who is doing his job wouldn’t look good to potential other candidates for the position, Fine said. Erwin, however, said there are enough concerns about the parks’ current condition that it’s time to get someone in with a new skills set. Merrill Anderson, a retired superintendent, said she wasn’t ready to lean in any direction but added that the review process must be handled carefully. Nordyke said the election will lead to a new board and could signal a time for change. Wahlstedt said it wouldn’t be right to express an opinion before a review is done. Young didn’t hesitate: “I want a change. I’ll leave it at that.” Butler said he doesn’t know enough about Gurban to have an opinion.