Parks update // Reports of discrimination at Park Board lead to action

A firm hired by the Minneapolis Park Board to take a deep look at the organization sped up the release of its findings after reports surfaced of racial discrimination against African-American employees.

The Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP wrote a letter to the Park Board in late December saying 60 employees and 100 park users complained of wrongful termination, unequal discipline or “outright racial humiliation of employees and customers” by Park Board staff.

Back in October, the Park Board hired a consulting firm, Dr. Betty Webb Consulting Inc., to look into, among other things, the internal climate of employees. The consulting firm, hearing of the NAACP letter, released much of its analysis early so that the Park Board could begin making changes immediately.

Much of what the consulting firm found, via interviews with 100 employees and documents from as far back as 1965, backed up what the NAACP said. It did commend the Park Board, under new Superintendent Jayne Miller, for taking initial steps to deal with the problem.

“The consultant team has concluded that it is not an overreaction to describe the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as demoralized internally — where employees across racial and ethnic lines feel stymied in their ability to effectively meet job responsibilities and not meaningfully connected to the greater purpose and direction of the organization,” consultants wrote.  

Miller, along with eight Park Board commissioners, sent a memo to employees promising to address the issues in the report. They also set up a series of meetings to listen to employees’ concerns.

Miller declined to discuss individual Park Board employees, citing them as personnel matters. Karen Robinson, who had been re-appointed Park Board Secretary on Jan. 3 and also served as assistant superintendent of administration, is no longer working at the Park Board. Miller declined to say if Robinson had been fired. Robinson’s duties included human resources.

The consultants say that “virtually everyone” with whom they spoke — white or black — said there is a climate of fear, vindictiveness, racial distrust and anger in the organization. Further, the report said the Park Board has a lack of understanding of different cultures and an unwillingness to connect to inner-city communities.

Bob Fine was the only Park Board commissioner who refused to sign the memo.

Fine said he doesn’t disagree that employee morale is low. In fact, Fine, a youth sports coach of more than 35 years who interacts regularly with recreation and maintenance workers, said employee morale over the past two years has been the lowest he’s ever seen it.

Miller’s memo says that many of the issues in the report have been present for years. Fine took issue with that part of the memo because he said it unfairly places the blame on former Superintendent Jon Gurban and previous Park Boards.

Fine says that budget cuts and restructuring done by interim superintendent David Fisher in 2010 have created stress and fear among Park Board staff. Maintenance and recreation workers, Fine said, have seen their staff size shrink while the Park Board has added more amenities to care for.

Miller, however, said that budget cuts date all the way back to 2003 and Park Board staffing has decreased from about 600 employees in 2003 to 463 today.

Miller said the Park Board received three complaints of possible discrimination in 2010 and 2011 combined. When a complaint is filed, she said, the Park Board brings in an outside investigator to look into it. She declined to discuss what those investigators concluded in 2009 and 2010.

Minneapolis NAACP President Booker Hodges wrote in an email to The Journal that since his letter to the Park Board went public, an additional 21 employee complaints have surfaced. But he also said he’s begun meeting with the Park Board regularly, and he’s been satisfied with the progress so far.

“The meetings have been very productive and we believe that the Park Board is taking steps to address our concerns and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” Hodges wrote.

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.