Park Board approves layoffs for first time in history

Interim superintendent says the changes will balance the budget while maintaining core services

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 and senior park staff. 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. In an interview 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.

The Park Board has lost roughly 100 front-line laborers to attrition during the last five years, while maintaining its management staff, he said. That means the same amount of managers were overseeing fewer people trimming trees, mowing grass, cleaning buildings and doing other necessary park work. With the budget growing tighter each year, Fisher said the organization had to be proactive about making cuts and rethinking its management structure.

“We want the buildings to be open to people here, we want the restrooms to not stink, we want the place to feel warm and inviting and friendly even though we’ve gone through a substantial budget reduction,” Fisher said. “But we can retain our core values.”

The restructuring took place days following the board meeting, to keep the organization’s budget out of the red through 2011.

Having personally known some of the managers whose positions were eliminated, Fisher said the process was difficult. He declined to list all of the specific positions that were cut, but one major change was the dismantling of the district manager system, which had supervisors in geographic districts overseeing numerous employees in other divisions.     

The result was the loss of 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 and former River District Manager Corky Wiseman was shifted to a new position, assistant superintendent of recreation.

Mammen said 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.

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.

The assistant superintendent model preceded the district setup, which was only in place for six years. Fisher said he found inconsistencies within the district system when it came to strategic development, planning and providing services.  

Hokeness, who worked under the assistant superintendent model from 1976–1988 before leaving to manage parks in Prior Lake, Burnsville and St. Paul, said he returned to Minneapolis five years ago because of the district management concept.

“That model, it was like clockwork,” Hokeness said. “It really ran well.”

He said Park Board members in the Lakes District could come to him with constituent issues and he would know who to talk to and how to solve the problems. He expects Park Board response time to increase without the district managers.

“The communication and cooperation I don’t think has ever been better than it was in these last six years under that district model,” Hokeness said.

Fisher said the assistant superintendent model is part of a larger retooling focused on improving community services. The goal is to get more employees out in the field to enhance community engagement, he said.

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 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 Anita Tabb (District 4) said as a newer board member, it wasn’t immediately clear to her how the system change might impact the park system. But she said she trusted Fisher’s judgement and didn’t see any reason why the retooled management structure wouldn’t work. She said allowing attrition to determine the structure would have been a worse move, even though losing staff was hard.

“It’s not something that’s never a pleasant thing to do,” Tabb said. “If you ever feel like it’s fun or good, you’ve probably lost your soul.”

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.

Fisher said the cuts had to be made right away to balance the budget. The new superintendent would likely not have time to immediately learn the system’s background and tackle that problem, he said.

“I can assure you that if I were the new superintendent, I would appreciate some legwork being done,” Fisher said.   

Commissioners at the meeting 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.”