Absences cancel another Park Board meeting

Update Feb. 20, 3:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Park Board commissioners.

For the second time in a month, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board could not hold a meeting due to multiple absences. Four commissioners were absent for both meetings.

The Feb. 19 Park Board meeting, where commissioners were set to vote on a new lease for Superintendent Al Bangoura at the Theodore Wirth House, was cancelled when only four commissioners were present and the body failed to meet a quorum.

“I think it’s petty politics and it’s very unfortunate,” said Commissioner Steffanie Musich (District 5), who was present.

Commissioners knew in advance that Park Board President Jono Cowgill would be out of town Feb. 19. Commissioners Brad Bourn (District 6), Londel French (At Large), AK Hassan (District 3) and Kale Severson (District 2) were also absent Feb. 19.

Those commissioners were also absent on Jan. 29, when Cowgill called a special meeting to vote on a lease for a new restaurant at The Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park. Commissioner Meg Forney (At Large) was on vacation that week, and believes the other commissioners coordinated to be absent that night to prevent a quorum.

“It’s very detrimental,” she said.

Not having a quorum at a scheduled meeting is rare. Park Board attorney Brian Rice, who has served as board for decades, said he couldn’t recall another similar occasion.

The absences come after a transition in Park Board leadership from Bourn to Cowgill in 2020.

Commissioner Chris Meyer (District 1) doesn’t believe the absences are a coincidence and said it “defies credulity” to believe all four happened to be absent Jan. 29, present for the Feb. 5 meeting and absent again Feb. 19. He thinks the group, under Bourn’s leadership, used Cowgill’s vacation as an opportunity to obstruct board business.

“It’s part of a broader, vindictive strategy in retaliation against President Cowgill and me because we didn’t support Commissioner Bourn for a third term as president,” Meyer wrote in a statement to the Southwest Journal. “And it was precisely because Commissioner Bourn routinely engages in such petty and destructive tactics such as this that I was unwilling to vote for him for president again. I regret that I ever did.”

Bourn called allegations he was coordinating efforts to deny quorum “ridiculous” and said he was hospitalized last week for a surgical operation on his kidney and is still recovering, which caused him to miss the meeting.

“It’s a pretty disgusting allegation,” Bourn said.

Bourn, who served as president the past two years on the board, said he thinks the new leadership is going through a learning period in how to ensure enough commissioners will be present when they are out of town.

Other absent commissioners did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Commissioners who did attend the meeting expressed concern that a pattern is developing. Absences, several commissioners said, are disrespectful to the public and staff members who stay late to present at meetings.

“This is an opportunity for the public to speak up,” Park Board Vice President LaTrisha Vetaw (At Large) said.

Musich said she believes the group did some simple counting Feb. 19 and realized if they didn’t show up, no meeting could occur.

“I think the voters need to say to the people who represent them, ‘Why aren’t you doing the work we elected you to do,’” Musich said.

Forney, Musich, Vetaw and Meyer attended the meeting.

Most items on the Feb. 19 agenda were not of urgent nature, but the cancelled meeting does delay the approval of contracts and will stack up informational presentations at future meetings.

“There’s work we have to accomplish and it’s important we have a quorum to do that work,” Bangoura said.

The superintendent said the MPRB will be OK despite the missed meeting. Mostly, he feels bad for members of the public who went out of their way to attend a meeting that didn’t happen. Bangoura and Vetaw both referenced a woman who took three buses to get there.

“Our staff deserves better,” Forney said. “Our constituents deserve better.”