Exit interview: Jayne Miller

Former superintendent discusses her career, concerns with Park Board

Miller. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

Jayne Miller is hundreds of miles away starting a new position leading a parks organization in Pittsburgh.

The former Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board superintendent resigned from her position in early February after seven years as the city’s top parks executive. During her time in Minneapolis, Miller was responsible for far-reaching campaigns to change the face of the city’s 157 neighborhood parks, from the $800 million 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan to an overhaul in system’s best practices.

The upstate New York native left a parks administrator position in Ann Arbor, Mich., and started as Minneapolis superintendent in 2010. She left to take the helm of the non-profit Pittsburg Parks Conservancy as president and CEO.

The day before she left the Twin Cities to move to Pennsylvania, the Southwest Journal sat down with Miller at her home, the historic residence of Theodore Wirth at Lyndale Farmstead Park that she rented as superintendent.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Southwest Journal: What first attracted you to this job in the Twin Cities?

Miller: While I was there I got a call from a recruiter for Minneapolis. My kids were in high school at the time. I said I wasn’t leaving. I was really torn whether to stay in Ann Arbor where I knew everybody, I knew who the players were [and] I knew what the issues were. Or to move here and do, in my view, my career path, which was parks. For me, parks are what I love.

What are some of your favorite memories in the city’s parks?

My first spring ride every year just blows me away. I go out here and go down on Lake Harriet and ride Minnehaha Creek and I’m blown away that I’m living in a metropolitan area. It’s a quick 16-mile ride, but it is amazing. Every spring I’m daunted by it.

The other thing is because I am a cyclist, I ride all over the city. To be able to literally go to any park I want to by getting on my bike is a great way for me to watch people enjoying our system.

How does it compare to your more than two decades in Michigan?

In terms of the physical infrastructure, there isn’t another city that compares to Minneapolis. In terms of the organization and being an independent park system, Ann Arbor cares a lot about its parks too, but there’s something incredibly unique here. The politics in this city and the fact that there’s a dispersion of power in the city politically create more challenges and more opportunities. As someone who is in the parks world and who loves that kind of challenge, it’s an incredible opportunity.

Commissioners brought you on to bring transparency and fiscal responsibility to the Park Board. Did you deliver?

The organization is more financially sound than it’s been in decades. Transparency was a critical piece of what I believe in and what we’ve done as an organization. I think also improving the level of professionalism in the organization, really being responsive to the community and really rebuilding the legacy of the system. The legacy of the system was there, but I think the organization had become stagnant. I often described it as a sleeping giant. I think it’s really revived. We’re recognized around the nation again as not only as having the best physical park system, but the most progressive work on race and equity issues, tree management, urban youth programming, community engagement and innovative design. It’s at the forefront again.

What should the current board be looking for in a new superintendent?

One of things that I did after the re-election with the board was hold a visioning session to understand what the board wanted to accomplish during their four years. My hope is the board does that first because they will have conversations to collectively figure out what they want to get accomplished as a board, not as individuals. That will drive what they need both in terms of focus areas for a superintendent and programmatically.

It’s critical they hire a strong parks professional who has worked in an urban community and who has worked with elected officials. One of the challenges here is we’re one of the largest systems in the country and one of a very few that is independent. I don’t think there are a lot of professionals out there that bring that level of experience because we’re so unique.

Why did you resign?

I had multiple job opportunities. I got recruited quite a bit during the time I’ve been here. I was hired to modernize the organization, secure the organization financially and put it in a good place. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.

How do you feel about leaving?

What I’m sad about leaving is that the things that are going to now happen because of what I’ve put in place, I’m going to miss. But Pittsburg today feels like how Minneapolis felt when I came here. Minneapolis was really on the cusp of doing great stuff. The public, private and non-profit worlds were working together. Everyone was aligned. Pittsburgh is in the same place. The public, private, non-profit worlds are all aligned about Pittsburgh being this rising star. Every person I talk to when I go to Pittsburgh says, “How do we become the No. 1 park system in the country?”

How would you respond to someone who felt like your resignation meant you don’t have faith in the new board?

I have concerns about the new board, there’s no question about that. Many of the new board members ran on a platform of not supporting the work that I did, making statements that in my view were inaccurate and not understanding the work that we had done. I struggle with that. I struggle with people running on a campaign without really having the facts and not knowing what was going on. I want to go to a place where I am appreciated and where people want me to be in the position that I’m in.

What worries you about the new commissioners?

In addition to some of the concerns that I had about the platform that many of them ran on, I think there are six of nine commissioners who really know very little about the Park Board. The things they ran on weren’t about taking care of the system. They have a steep learning curve. It’s one thing if it’s one, two or three commissioners, but when it is the majority of commissioners, I think they have a lot of work to do.

It’s hard. It was hard when I came in. But to not want to understand those things and understand a $112 million budget and the complexity of the system? I think there’s all of that that needs to happen in order for them to make good decisions about who they’re going to hire, what directions they’re going to go and the tradeoffs if they do this versus that.

Do your concerns extend to President Brad Bourn?

I’m not going to answer that. I’ll leave that alone.

You’re leaving behind a lot of staff you’ve hired. How would you say the organization is feeling about the new board?

Any time any organization, particularly staff at a higher level in an organization, go through a leadership change, in this case a new superintendent and a new board, there’s a level of anxiety because you don’t know. Understandably so. People say things on campaigns and then when they get in it’s a little different.

You’ve met Meg Cheever, the person you’re succeeding in Pennsylvania. How do you feel about taking her place?

I have big shoes to fill. She started the organization 20 years ago. During her tenure, they’ve raised $105 million. Meg and I are professional colleagues and have gotten to know each other a lot over the last three years and I really respect her a lot and she respects me a lot. Where they are right now is really a transformative moment.

What were your biggest challenges here?

I would say when I got here that not being from here was my biggest hurdle. There’s a unique culture here in Minneapolis and Minnesota that if you’re not from here that you can’t understand it. There’s parochialism here that I’ve never seen anywhere else I’ve worked, and I’ve worked in a lot of different communities.

The organization had been stagnant for quite a while. Staff had been here a long time. One of the challenges with a system this size is that if you don’t get exposed to other systems and parks professionals around the country, you compare yourselves to each other.

Politically there are challenges here. There are so many entities involved with the Park Board. I’m someone who believes very strongly in collaboration, so I think our partners were excited that that was my approach, because I think people felt like that Park Board had been pretty difficult to deal with.

Has the tone changed when people talk about the parks?

When I was leaving, it was interesting to hear staff talk about how when I got here the parks weren’t very well respected and they didn’t feel respected. I feel a sense of pride in the organization and the staff, and they feel the community’s respect of them that they didn’t feel when I first got here.

Back then, there wasn’t a lot of staff development. I think people felt like there was no need, that we were doing our best. But I’d say the world is constantly changing and we have to evolve. I think it was threatening for staff. What I see today in staff is a real pride that we get calls from all over the world about what we’re doing.