Park Board approves layoffs for first time in history

The board also announced three finalists for superintendent, including Minnesota House Speaker and former DFL gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher.  

After more than a century of letting attrition control employee departures from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the organization on Sept. 15 approved severance packages for up to 18 staff members, most of them managers.

The layoffs, the first in Park Board history, are part of a broad restructuring of the organization led by interim superintendent David Fisher. Fisher served as superintendent from 1981-1998 and is filling in until a new superintendent is hired later this fall. His contract is up at the end of October.

Even before he returned in July, Fisher said restructuring the department was a priority. After the Sept. 15 meeting, he said the system’s longtime model of turnover through attrition has kept the organization from evaluating what positions are truly needed and what it could do without. With the budget growing tighter each year, he said the Park Board had to be proactive.

“What we need is boots on the ground,” he said.  

The restructuring will take place immediately to keep the board’s budget out of the red through 2011.

Having personally known some of the managers whose positions are slated for elimination, Fisher said the process has been difficult. He said more information on the cut jobs would be forthcoming, after employees were notified.

All of the district manager positions were cut. That includes Lakes District Manager Paul Hokeness, a familiar face in Southwest, and Minnehaha manager Obie Kipper. Richard Mammen, director of community recreation services and a candidate for Minneapolis School Board, also lost his job. Former River District Manager Corky Wiseman was shifted to a new position, assistant superintendent of recreation.

Wiseman was one of four existing park employees appointed to five new assistant superintendent positions. Also in those roles are Mike Schmidt, operations; Don Siggelkow, development, and Karen Robinson, administration. Fisher has yet to name the fifth assistant superintendent, who will oversee planning.

Mammen, who started with the Park Board five years ago, said he found out about his layoff a week ago. He’ll continue to do special projects with the board through November. He said he didn’t expect his tenure to end this way, but he wasn’t shocked.

"It wasn’t a surprise at all," Mammen said. "The reality is we all know the budget is tight and there have to be some changes made in light of the fiscal reality." 

He said he expects Wiseman to carry on the city’s youth and recreation programs without trouble. Next to the parks, Mammen said, the staff are the Park Board’s biggest asset and they’ll work to improve the system regardless of their numbers.

Only one commissioner voted against the staffing changes. At-Large Commissioner Bob Fine said he agreed with the financial need for layoffs, but he was concerned about an interim superintendent making staffing changes that the new superintendent might disagree with in a month. Fine also said he thought the existing district management model worked well.

“I just have a problem with what’s been happening with the restructuring that were doing right now, especially as it applies to the changing of the districts and the involvement of the board in making the decision,” he said.

Commissioner Liz Wielinski (District 1), said the staffing changes were part of what Fisher was brought on to do.

“We hired a superintendent and we give a superintendent the tools to do what he needs to do to make the system better,” she said.

Commissioners thanked affected staff for the work they’ve done and emphasized that the decision to let them go was not taken lightly.

“This 127-year-old organization has never gone through a change like this,” said At-Large Commissioner Annie Young. “We’ve never laid off staff and this has been difficult for all of us, so this is not something we do on a regular basis. We take it very, very seriously.”

Also on Sept. 15, Park Board President John Erwin announced three finalists for the superintendent job, one of them Minnesota House Speaker and former DFL gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who lives in Bryn Mawr.

Kelliher, who lost the primary Aug. 10 to Mark Dayton, could not be immediately reached for comment about her decision to apply for the top parks job, but she said in a prepared statement that she was pleased to be a finalist and looking forward to the next steps.

“Creating and maintaining unique recreational spaces in one of the Midwest’s premiere parks settings is an exciting opportunity to serve our community,” the statement said.

Kelliher’s competitors are Steve Rymer, director of recreation and community services in Morgan Hill, Calif. and Stanley Motley, director of parks and recreation in Fulton County, Ga. Erwin said a review committee originally selected five finalists, but one took another job and a second was dismissed after a background check.

The board encouraged non-traditional candidates to apply for the position. Erwin said the interview process is expected to start the first week in October.