Parks Board approves 2019 budget, keeps controversial lobbyist role

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Dec. 5 unanimously approved a $124 million budget for 2019, including funds for a lobbyist role that ignited heated exchanges at a recent meeting.

The position in question, an intergovernmental relations role aimed at helping MPRB work with legislative bodies at the state, county and city level, sparked contentious debate at the Nov. 28 Park Board meeting. Commissioner Meg Forney called the process that led to the hiring of current intergovernmental relations consultant Kendal Killian “corrupt.”

Killian, who has deep ties in local DFL circles, was hired by interim Superintendent Mary Merrill on a six-month contract of $65,233 that expires at the end of the year. Commissioners opted to allocate $107,000 for a staff intergovernmental relations position in the 2019 budget. Forney made a motion to eliminate the position Nov. 28, but that motion failed on a 6-3 vote with commissioners Steffanie Musich and LaTrisha Vetaw joining Forney.

Commissioner Chris Meyer on Dec. 5 offered a last-minute compromise proposal to set aside the dollars allocated for the lobbyist role to a “park advocacy fund” to be used at the discretion of incoming Superintendent Al Bangoura, who was nominated by the board last week. He said  the board should move on from the position, but should also maintain funding for advocacy work.

“Fairly or not, I still feel the lack of buy-in from the board makes his position nonviable,” Meyer said of Killian’s role.

His motion failed 6-3. The budgeted staff position would go through a new hiring process in 2019.

The 2019 budget seeks to increase youth investment, environmental protection, community engagement and financial sustainability, according to the MPRB.

“Our city has a critical need for enhanced youth programs and services, and youth violence prevention strategies, and the Park Board is uniquely positioned to address this need” Merrill said in a statement. “We appreciate Mayor (Jacob) Frey’s support for the work we do and his down payment towards the ongoing investment needed for youth services. We are very proud to partner with the Mayor and the Minneapolis Public Schools on piloting the new wrap-around, full-service community school/park model for Minneapolis children.”

The 2019 parks budget brings a 5.7 percent property tax levy increase, which will mean an estimated $17 annual increase in property taxes for the owners of a city-median valued home of $249,000. The levy increase includes a 5.8 percent increase in the MPRB general fund and a 3 percent bump to the tree preservation and reforestation levy.

Other budget highlights include the re-addition of a full-time forestry outreach position (though the hiring will be delayed until March for cost savings), a comprehensive energy action plan, implementing a carp management plan, increasing funding for a micro-grant program focused on elders, girls and Somali youth and renaming the Leadership Fund the Walter Dziedzic Recreation Innovation Fund in recognition of the recently deceased former City Council member and MPRB commissioner from Northeast.

Heated meeting

The decision to pass the budget was ultimately unanimous, but came on the heels of a heated five-hour Nov. 28  meeting where tempers flared and accusations of cronyism were made surrounding the lobbyist position.

Forney questioned the process of hiring Killian and said his invoices were not properly itemized. Forney asked if Killian was the top-rated applicant in the process.

Merrill said she, board attorney Brian Rice and the assistant superintendents conducted the interviews for the intergovernmental relations position.

“The ultimate decision was mine,” Merrill said.

She said the city, school board and Hennepin County all have such intergovernmental positions on staff, and the Park Board had a similar staff member about 10 years ago.

Forney continued to press on the process, causing Merrill to become visibly upset and leading to pushback from other board members. Forney made a motion to terminate Killian’s position to terminate Killian’s position “on grounds of a corrupted process” but the motion failed.

Commissioner Londel French called attacks on Merrill disrespectful and said the questions of integrity were out of line.

“What I’m watching right now is some kind of persecution,” French said.

“I just want to note for the record that I do feel very abused,” Merrill said. “I feel attacked. I think what just transpired was not for the good of the park system.”

“I’m sorry but there is a community out there that’s asking questions,” Forney said.

Other city officials came to speak for and against the position.

Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation President Carol Becker was harsh in her condemnation of the position and called for a neutral investigator and, if warranted, for commissioners to resign.

“You need to terminate this contract, and you need to terminate it now,” Becker said.

Minneapolis School Board Chair Nelson Inz and Ward 13 City Council Member Linea Palmisano, who once employed Killian in her office, came to speak in support of his role with MPRB.

“It’s important to have a liaison to the Park Board to cultivate strong working relationships between two independent bodies of government that share the same geography for the benefit of our residents,” Palmisano said.

Other local political figures wrote letters supporting Killian when he applied in April and after the role drew criticism in November, including Mayor Jacob Frey, Ward 6 City Council Member Abdi Warsame, State Rep. Mike Freiberg (45B), State Rep.-elect Mohamud Noor (60B) and Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene.

Killian’s relationship with board President Brad Bourn also drew criticism. Bourn told The Southwest Journal he has a close relationship with Killian and another applicant for the intergovernmental relations role, Sarah Walker, and encouraged both to apply for the job last spring. He said he played no part in the hiring decision.

With a recent elections changing the legislative bodies of the city, school board, Hennepin County and in St. Paul, having someone in the intergovernmental relations position is “absolutely critical” to the Park Board moving forward, he said.