New Park Board is still finding its bearings

Judge Tanya Bransford swore in the nine members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board at a Jan. 2 ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

After a divisive election year and unprecedented turnover, six new members and three returning commissioners are settling in as a different Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board emerges.

It’s been a year of new beginnings at the Park Board, which lost its superintendent to another city in February. Commissioners, many of them first-time elected officials who are still learning the ropes, will spend the year looking for a new top executive.

District 5 Commissioner Steffanie Musich says there’s a learning curve for every commissioner, from newly elected officials to returning commissioners who find themselves in leadership roles. The first few meetings have been “awkward,” she added.

“At the moment, this organization sort of feels rudderless. We’re just drifting along. I hope that changes as folks gain more experience,” said Musich, who is serving her second term representing the Lake Nokomis area. “It’s a big jump to go from the campaign trail to being on the dais and doing the work of a commissioner.”

Former Superintendent Jayne Miller announced her resignation late last year before the latest generation of commissioners took office. In an interview before she left, Miller said she had concerns with the number of new commissioners and several of their campaigns that opposed her and her work.

Jono Cowgill, a newly elected commissioner whose District 4 stretches between Bde Maka Ska and the downtown riverfront, said he doesn’t think anyone should be concerned.

“I got involved not to take anybody down but to be talking aspirationally about what could be better about how the Park Board includes everybody in the community, (shapes) our community spaces and (makes) safe, engaging places to live. I think everyone on the board shares that,” he said.

With only a few meetings under its belt so far, the character of the new Park Board has yet to materialize in votes or policy.

Musich, however, said she’s already experienced a lack of communication between board members. Little things, such as directing speakers during the board’s regular open time to staff, have fallen by the wayside.

“There’s definitely a clique, and I’m not part of it,” she said. “I just don’t know how much we’re listening to each other yet.”

Meg Forney, a returning at-large commissioner, said while she doesn’t feel a separation from her fellow commissioners, it does feel different from the previous board. The body then felt “matured,” Forney said, because she was coming as a freshman commissioner among several seasoned park officials.

“We’re definitely a board who hasn’t coalesced and figured out what is it that we can agree on,” she said.

Many commissioners may simply be navigating politics for the first time. Cowgill said he joined the board not as a politician, but as a neighborhood organizer who didn’t have relationships with many Park Board members.

The Lowry Hill East resident said he doesn’t see a divide between new and returning commissioners. As the vice chair of the board’s Planning Committee and a professional planner outside politics, he said Forney has been a mentor to him as chair. The two don’t live far from each other, either.

“The schism that was really marketable during the campaign … I don’t think exists in the reality of a workaday environment,” he said. “I think it’s critical to the intellectual independence of our different Park Board members to stay away from (the) sort of narrative that we’re voting as a bloc.”

Forney, who said the election is “water over the dam” now, said she’s hopeful the nine commissioners can learn from each other. So far, they’ve received more training than they have in years past, she added.

“I’m trying my best to see the real, genuine people,” she said.

District 1 Commissioner Chris Meyer is chair of the board’s Legislative & Intergovernmental Committee. He said he’s spent the first couple months working long hours preparing for the next legislative session.

“We have a lot to learn,” he said. “There’s been lots of reading [and] a lot of staff meetings.”

Cowgill, 29, said there is an advantage to the new group of commissioners, who represent a shift toward a younger, more racially diverse Park Board. Their experiences are just as necessary as the experiences and longevity of seasoned commissioners, he added.

“Diversity and energy around that is hugely needed at a time when our city is growing (and) when we have so many more young people moving into the city,” he said.

President Brad Bourn (District 6), the ranking commissioner on the board, said the key difference with the current board is its energy. There’s a “spark of curiosity” among commissioners that has them open to new ideas, he added.

“(Before,) the first answer was ‘we can’t do this,’ ‘we’ve tried this’ or ‘no, because,’” he said. “All the commissioners are really starting from ‘why can’t we do this?’ or ‘why can’t we work this way?’”

Commissioners will need to come together in a search for a new superintendent. Superintendent Emeritus Mary Merrill, a former superintendent and commissioner, is serving as Miller’s temporary replacement through October.

Musich said she would like to see a new superintendent with a handle on modern business practices, which would be useful in making sure the board’s business practices are self-sustaining and property taxes don’t price out Minneapolis residents.

Managing the board — almost like a “city within the city,” she said — requires balancing complicated moving parts.

“I really want to see someone who has some deep executive roots,” she said.

Cowgill said ground-up experience working with communities, especially under-represented communities, is on his priority list. Meyer said he’d ideally like someone from Minnesota who is able to stay with the organization for a while.

Before the board even begins its search, Forney said she’d like an independent facilitator to review their aspirations for the organization and help them figure out what they want to see in the city’s next parks leader.

The search will be the primary topic of the board’s March 1 retreat.

Bourn, who is the only sitting commissioner who has gone through a superintendent search process, said a request for proposals for a search firm will likely go out in mid or late March. He said community input will be key to the process.

“We’ve never really engaged folks in our community of what kind of interactions and values are important… in a superintendent,” he said.