Monthly Archives: August 2005

SW Journal: Giving and Receiving

« Many Park Board members get a big chunk of their campaign war chest from lawyer Brian Rice and his associates. Rice’s firm earns more than $400,000 doing Park Board legal work. Is there a conflict?

Brian Rice’s law firm, Rice, Michels & Johnson, got $439,000 in 2001 from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for contract legal work as general counsel and lobbyist.

Rice gave as well as received. He, his wife, his law firm and its members gave more than $5,000 to candidates in the 2001 Park Board races, campaign finance records show. Two groups that Rice represents as a lobbyist, the Minneapolis Police Relief Association and the Minneapolis Fire Relief Association, contributed another $3,600 to Park Board races. In addition to his donations, Rice said he helped organize a fundraisers for Park Board candidates.

Because Park Board campaign war chests are relatively small, with most raising under $10,000 in 2001, a few large contributions go a long way.

Six of nine sitting Park Board members received 13 percent or more of their 2001 fundraising from Rice and his connections. One, Ed Solomon, received 40 percent of his fundraising from Rice’s group.

It is not illegal. Yet should someone receiving large contracts from a government body contribute to, and actively campaign for, its board members — and should the candidates accept such help?

It depends on whom you ask.

Those pushing for tighter campaign finance reform laws say such donations undermine people’s confidence in the system. If not illegal, it can create the appearance of conflicts of interest, they say.

Park Board president Bob Fine wonders why Rice’s contract is getting extra scrutiny, saying Rice’s donations are no different than those made by political action committees and other interested parties in City Council and other local races.

Rice said it is “the community standard” for law firms to contribute to political races. “I am happy to contribute to them,” he said.

He stands on his record, Rice said, noting he recently won a court case that tried to block the Park Board’s development of the Fort Snelling athletic complex — complete with lights and bleachers.

When John Belfry looked into the contributions and saw connections between Rice’s law firm and a group that rents space from the Park Board in the former superintendent’s house — a group Belfry said has a sweetheart rent deal — he got suspicious.

Mayor R.T. Rybak pushed for the creation of a team to look at ethics in government. It has begun work on some issues — conflict of interest, nepotism, and lobbying by former city officials, said team member Dor Mead, a former City Councilmember. It has not started work on campaign finance issues.

Speaking for herself, Mead said she believes there is a problem when elected officials accept campaign contributions from those doing business with the group they represent.

“Sometimes, you can get into some interesting gray areas,” she said. “You know elected officials are prohibited from taking gifts. How do you make a distinction between this kind of a campaign contribution versus a gift from a vendor?”

Park Board Commissioner Vivian Mason has declined contributions from Rice, saying they are inappropriate.

“I feel anybody who is a contracted employee of the Park Board should not be involved in the political campaigns of any candidates,” she said.

Well connected

Brian Rice comes from a political family; his father, Jim Rice, a staunch DFLer, was a long-time state representative from north Minneapolis. His uncle, Dick Kantorwicz served on the Park Board from 1955 to 1961, including a stint as president, Rice said. Family friend Ed Gearty served on the Park Board from 1959 to 1963 and later served as the Park Board attorney.

Former Park Board Commissioner Patty Hillmeyer, someone Rice knew since he was a kid, got him his first job with the Board in 1983, he said. He had just finished law school and had started his career as a municipal bond lawyer.

In a sideways way, Minneapolis DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn got him the job, he said. Kahn “kept sticking it to the Park Board” in various appropriations bills. Hillmeyer wanted more help at the legislature.

Rice lobbied that session and has worked for the Park Board ever since, a career spanning three different law firms, including his own, Rice, Michels & Johnson, which opened in May 2000. He became the board’s general counsel in the mid-1990s.

“Yeah, I’m active. I contribute,” Rice said. “When I got hired the first time, I hadn’t contributed anything to anyone. If a commissioner has asked for my help, since I have been (with) the board, I’ve helped them out. Or if I have offered and they have accepted, I’ve helped them out.”

He or his firm gave to all incumbent commissioners and he hosted fundraisers for them during the last election — except Mason and Annie Young, who did not want the donations, Rice said. He would put together a fundraising memo and send it to his friends and clients, like the Minneapolis Police Relief Association and the Minneapolis Fire Relief Association.

“If they want to come, they come,” he said. “It’s tough running a race. Politicians don’t like asking for money. It is not a fun task.”

Rice said he has held fundraisers for gubernatorial hopefuls Roger Moe and Tim Pawlenty. “I do a lot of legislative stuff,” he said. “I’ve given to the House Democrats, the House Republicans, the Senate Republicans, the Senate Democrats — that is the way the world works.”

Unlike the contributions to state legislative races, where Rice may hope to influence future legislation, the contributions to the Park Board are essentially going to his employers.

“Go to City Hall. You will find tons of lawyers and tons of law firm PACs that contribute …. They do work on special contract stuff all the time,” he said. “Lawyers have always been givers to political campaigns.”

Rice has backed losing Park Board candidates, usually incumbents. He supported incumbent George Puzak, who lost an at-large seat to Bob Fine in 1997. Rice backed his long-time friend Hillmeyer, another incumbent who lost to Walt Dziedzic in 1997.

“Walt was not happy with me,” Rice said, smiling. “He still reminds me of it every chance he gets.”

Yet in spite of past support for their political opponents, Dziedzic and Fine strongly support Rice’s contract.

“I voted to hire Brian (Rice) as the lawyer/lobbyist because I saw what a good job he did over there in St. Paul,” Dziedzic said. “I don’t think there is anyone who comes close to him in the state of Minnesota.”

A little goes far

Park Board members work part-time and tend to have lower-profile elections compared to City Council races. Park Board members get $10,200 a year compared to $65,678 for councilmembers.

The Park Board has nine members; three run citywide and six run in districts. Park Board districts are twice the size of council wards, yet those running for City Council raised considerably more money than their Park Board counterparts.

One Park Board member, Dziedzic, raised more than $22,000 in 2001. Fine had the second highest total, $9,937. The other winners averaged $6,196.

By comparison, Councilmembers Barret Lane (13th Ward) raised $16,570 in 2001; Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) raised $24,450; Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) raised $30,280; Scott Benson (11th Ward) raised $36,400 and Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) raised $53,440.

The disparity means that the few who give to Park Board campaigns have a larger impact (see sidebar, page 6).

For instance, Rice, his wife and his law firm and the city police and fire relief associations he lobbies each gave Fine a maximum $300 donation, a total of $1,500, according to campaign finance reports. It represented 15 percent of Fine’s 2001 fundraising.

How important is money in a campaign? Zimmermann, a former Park Board member, said, “it takes a certain amount of money. Ask the question about the functioning of an automobile. How important is the rotor cap? It is just a small thing, but the car won’t run without it.”

Zimmermann praised Rice’s Park Board work. He said Rice was dedicated, thorough and stayed in communication.

However, Zimmermann returned Rice’s campaign contribution when he was on the Park Board.

“I did not feel comfortable taking money from somebody who does business that closely with the Park Board,” Zimmermann said. “I have taken money from him for my City Council race. There is not the same relationship there.”

Currying favor

Many people — Fine, Rice and Parks Superintendent Mary Merrill Anderson — said lawyers and PACs routinely donate to campaigns.

Some people would like to see tighter restrictions on campaign donations at the local level.

Sen. John Marty authored the “gift ban” bill in 1994, which prohibited lobbyists from giving gifts to elected state officials. The bill also prevented “interested parties” from giving gifts to local elected officials.

Marty said he has tried unsuccessfully to include campaign contributions as part of the gift ban law for state and local officials.

“The bottom line, they are probably not doing anything illegal,” Marty said of the Minneapolis Park Board situation. “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. It would be troubling to most people, I think, when somebody who has a contract with an organization is somehow currying favor with a gift.”

“They (donations) help you get access and build good will, which indirectly is going to influence behavior of public officials,” Marty said.

Rybak, who pushed the government ethics issue during his 2001 mayoral bid and refused to take contributions from those seeking city subsidies, declined comment on the Park Board situation, a spokeswoman said. He will wait for recommendations from the Ethics Team.

Maury Landsman, a University of Minnesota Law School professor who teaches ethics and professional responsibility, said one question is: Are the members of the board making a disinterested decision in choosing this particular firm?

(Julie Landsman, Maury’s wife, is a contributing writer to Skyway News, Southwest Journal’s sibling publication.)

“Maybe it kind of doesn’t feel right,” Landsman said. “‘Doesn’t feel right’ isn’t enough to make it unethical. Unless there is a particular allegation against the firm or a particular park board member, I can understand why some people say it doesn’t feel right. It is not clear to me that anything wrong is going on.”

Conflict or witch hunt?

John Belfry of Tangletown isn’t alleging wrongdoing, but he does have questions about the connections between Rice’s firm, the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association (MRPA) and Park Board decisions.

MRPA rents the Superintendent’s House, 3954 Bryant Ave. S., from the Park Board for $750 a month and does not pay utilities, a deal that has recently drawn criticism.

Belfry’s wife, Mary Belfry, is a member of the Parks Legacy Society, a group that wants to turn the former Superintendent’s House (what the Legacy Society calls the Theodore Wirth House) into a museum.

John Belfry is not a member of the Legacy Society, he said. But as a business owner and taxpayer, he thought the MRPA’s lease was a bad deal. He also objected to what he characterized as the Park Board’s non-responsive attitude towards Legacy Society questions.

So he started digging.

He found that a member of Rice’s law firm lobbied for the MRPA – meaning Rice’s firm represented the Park Board and a non-profit it contracted with. Even though there may be nothing there, Belfry said, the Park Board should avoid the appearance of a conflict.

“There are some conflicts of interest with respect to continuing the lease when they are all intertwined like that,” he said.

(Landsman said the lawyer’s code of conduct does not require attorneys to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. That provision was struck in 1983 as too vague. It still applies to judges.)

Rice, the MRPA and Park Board members and staff say nothing inappropriate has happened behind the scenes. The Park Board and MRPA signed the lease in 1997, more than 3 years before Rice’s law firm began lobbying for MRPA.

Rice’s firm has worked with MRPA lobbying on bleacher safety and after-school grants, Rice said. In all, the lobbying contracts were worth roughly $3,000.

Rice said working with MRPA has strengthened the Park Board’s lobbying position at the Capitol; MRPA is a statewide organization and gives park funding requests greater relevance to more legislators.

The Park Board has not voted on the MRPA lease since it was signed. MRPA recently exercised its last option, extending the lease to June 2005.

The Legacy Society has the money to buy-out the MRPA lease, it says. The Park Board has not acted on that request.

Park Board member Jon Olson said he has tried to push for an alternative site for the museum, a move opposed by the Legacy Society. Other board members have raised concerns about funding museum operations if they opened one.

Superintendent Anderson said people might see a potential conflict if Rice were drawing up a new lease for the Park Board and the MRPA, “but that was not the case.”

Rice said former Superintendent David Fisher negotiated the lease because he did not want to live in the superintendent’s house anymore. Rice said he had “absolutely nothing” to do with any discussions about the lease’s future, only a discussion about what the existing lease required.

“They must be absolutely nuts,” Rice said, of people speculating on a conflict. “The discussions are, ‘what are the terms of the lease?’ Read the lease. You don’t have to talk to your lawyer to do that. What is there to do? I am not a policymaker.”

For anyone to impugn the MRPA in such a way was “despicable,” he said.

Anderson referred to questions linking Rice to the MRPA lease as “a witch hunt.” Park Board Commissioner Marie Hauser referred to such questions as verging on scandal-mongering.

The people who want the museum at the superintendent’s house “are using all of the methods they can” to pressure this choice, she said.

Gift ban violation?

The Star Tribune reported July 2 that Park Board staff might have violated a state gift ban by accepting roughly 150 free MRPA memberships, valued at $19,000.

The Park Board doesn’t believe it has violated state law, but some people may perceive a problem because of the MRPA’s tenant-landlord relationship with the Park Board, said Park Board spokeswoman Emily Ero-Phillips. The superintendent and the five assistant superintendents will no longer accept free memberships.

The Park Board staff will review the legal issues around accepting free MRPA memberships and report to the board soon, she said.

Rice said he had reviewed the issue with the superintendent, including a reminder that his firm lobbied for MRPA, and said memberships did not violate the gift ban. He believes an exception exists because the gifts were given broadly, not just to decision-makers.

Ero-Phillips said the superintendent would not use Rice’s firm for the review, but seek independent counsel.

Drawing the line

Fine said that accepting a campaign contribution from the Park Board’s attorney is no different than accepting one from a union — or anyone else with a special interest before the Park Board.

“What is the problem?” he asked. “What if a group of residents wants a dog park and they donate money to a campaign? … Do we vote on union contracts or things that affect contracts? Of course. Does that mean people who belong to unions can’t donate to campaigns?”

“You are almost talking about — where do you draw the line?” he asked.

That’s what PACs do

The Minneapolis Police Relief Association gave $2,200 to Park Board candidates in 2001. It is a pension fund for roughly 1,000 police officers, but it has been closed to new members since 1980, the association said. The association includes three active park police officers.

(The park police salary and benefits are derived from the labor agreement between the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis and the city. The Park Board has to sign off on issues of work rules or anything unique to the park system.)

The Minneapolis Fire Relief Association, a pension fund for roughly 750 fire fighters, gave $1,400 to Park Board candidates in 2001.

Why donate to the Park Board?

“That’s what PAC funds are for — to invest money in candidates that you feel are doing a good job for the state, the city, the county, whatever the case might be,” said Walter Schirmer, the PAC treasurer for the fire relief association. “We have a retiree group that has monthly meetings at Park Board facilities. I don’t think they charge them anything, they may charge a stipend. They are pretty good about letting them use the facilities.”

Rice lobbies for both the police and fire relief associations, but some say they would have received campaign contributions regardless of his ties.

Dziedzic, for instance, is a retired police officer and a member of the police relief association.

People like Hauser and Graves have strong union backgrounds.

Hauser said the Police Relief Association was one of a number of union groups that contributed. “I didn’t realize Brian was a lobbyist for them,” Hauser said. “I am a union member and I have been a union member for 28 years,” said Hauser, a nurse. »

by Scott Russell, published July 8, 2002 in the Southwest Journal.

Park Watch Endorsements

Park Watch, the Minneapolis citizens Park Board watch-dog group, announced Monday night, August 29, 2005, the names of candidates it endorses for the 2005 fall election to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Park Watch is an ad hoc citizens group formed in January of 2004 when the Park Board voted to hire an individual who had neither been a candidate nor interviewed for the position of superintendent. That disturbing incident was the catalyst for Park Watch.

For the past 20 months, members and supporters of Park Watch have been attending Park Board meetings on a regular basis to observe first-hand how the Park Board has been conducting business. Park Watch has also examined the financial reports for 2002 through 2005, as well as numerous other sources of information.

Park Watch has concluded that the Park Board, the city’s largest landowner with over 6,400 acres of land, is in trouble. It has been plagued by lawsuits, losses and a controversial majority coalition. Services are being cut and taxes are increasing.

The voters of Minneapolis now have the opportunity to make a difference in the membership of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Park Watch co-founder Chris Johnson said, “We deserve a better Park Board. Taxpayers deserve a Park Board with commissioners who will actively support fiscal and administrative accountability, collaborative leadership and citizen participation.”

Park Watch firmly believes the following candidates are capable of working together to identify and find solutions for the Park Board’s existing problems:

  • District 1: LuAnn Wilcox
  • District 3: Scott Vreeland
  • District 4: Tracy Nordstrom
  • District 5: Jason Stone
  • District 6: Jim Bernstein
  • At-large (city wide): Rochelle Berry Graves
  • At-large (city wide): Tom Nordyke
  • At-large (city wide): Annie Young

No candidate is endorsed for district 2.

The selection process involved analysis of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board operations and finances, examination of the candidates’ qualifications, and careful deliberations over the past year.

“It is time for a change. It is time to end the conflict and the controversy associated with the Park Board and its dysfunctional majority clique,” Johnson stated.

“This is the year we can all check out candidates and decide, do we want our basics covered and our parks maintained, or do we want to become ‘private enterprise developers,'” said Liz Wielinski, Park Watch member.


Park Board Meeting

Regular first Wednesday of the month commissioner meeting.

Official agenda documents can be found at this link.

Some items of note:

6:00pm — public Open Time
– presentation to the Minneapolis Park Board by the WBCC Bluff Street park task force.

Regular Meeting
Bob Fine brings forward a “Lake Calhoun Site Plan Update” which sounds suspiciously like the Yacht Club Sailing Village on the southeast shore of the lake.

Planning Committee

In Defense of Open Spaces

The Sept./Oct. issue of Preservation magazine from the National Trust for Historic Preservation has an essay called “In Defense of Open Spaces.” Some excerpts:

« In the age of video games and attention deficit disorder, “open space” has become a dirty term. Open space in America’s parks is being wiped out, revised, or populated by new structures and parking lots. Municipal officials tend to see such space as a void that must be filled, “programmed” to amuse all corners.

This national trend — the cluttering of reposeful park grounds with activity-oriented “focal points” — is lamentable and perplexing, not least because park users themselves aren’t demanding change. According to surveys conducted over the past two decades, between 70 and 80 percent of American park users visit them specifically for passive, reflective experiences, not for entertainment. …

In Seattle, Occidental [Square] is an open, European-style square with a Jones & Jones-designed glass pavilion — now used mainly by transients — and cobblestone paving. The Project for Public Spaces would like to overhaul the space completely, removing its trees and the glass structure and painting the facades of surrounding historic buildings. The group has even proposed replacing the uneven cobblestones with Astroturf! …

Other public spaces are in effect being privatized. This can be seen in the partial closing of Manhattan’s Bryant Park for two months a year due to special events — for example, the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week and a car show — and in construction of new additions elsewhere … When such additions appear in previously open parkland, the character of the whole landscape is changed irrevocably.

All are associated with more parking and more pavement, all adorned and embellished with off-the-shelf outdoor furniture and lights. Strip away the historic. Make way for special interests (this is often the real objective).

In many urban settings today, fractured communities abut public landscapes where old and young, rich and poor must coexist. These spaces can work. … People who live near and play in these cities’ parks have become their greatest defenders.

Those of us who value continuity are increasingly cast as “standing in the way of progress” or “out of touch.” Imagine that we didn’t use such labels. Imagine that we built a common foundation of knowledge to guide the planning process before new designs were given form. »

The essay is by Charles A. Birnbaum, a landscape architect, who is the coordinator of the national Park Service Historic landscape Initiative and the founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Link to full article at National Trust web site.

How can you show your support for Bluff Street Park?

Attend the Park Board meeting Wednesday Sept. 7

What: presentation to the Minneapolis Park Board by the WBCC Bluff Street park task force

When: Wednesday, September 7, 2005, 6pm, during the Park Board meeting open forum

Where: MPRB administrative offices, 2117 West River Rd, board room suite 255 (just north of broadway pizza)

Why: we need your support! There is strength in numbers! Please come to this meeting to show the Park Board that the will of the community will be heard in this matter.

The Minneapolis Park Board is considering selling a Mississippi River bluff, Bluff Street park – also known as gasworks bluff, to high-rise condominium developers.

This is the bluff on the west bank of the river, on the bend in the river between downtown and the university, between the 35w bridge and the railroad pedestrian bridge, appoximately 8 acres.

The neighborhood association for Cedar/Riverside, the West Bank community coalition, has a task force that has been working for over a year to create a plan to preserve this precious open space. The U of M Metropolitan Design Center has created a design for the park based on results of a stake holder survey they conducted at the WBCC annual meeting in October, 2004. The virtually unanimous neighborhood concensus is to preserve this bluff as a natural, native habitat for wildlife, with paths for walking, biking, etc.

What is, after all, the mission of the Park Board?
Questions? 612-332-4706

Hi-Rise Condo or Park?

BLUFF STREET PARK, aka Gasworks Bluff

About 8 acres of linear vacant land above the West River Parkway owned by the Minneapolis Park Board.
The neighborhood committee working on this issue refers to the area as Bluff Street Park.
Readers may see it referred to elsewhere as “Gasworks Bluff”.

Developers John and Fred Wall have expressed their interest in purchasing the land to build a 200-unit condominium. What we know to date, August 2005, is that they approached District 3’s Park Board Commissioner, Marie Hauser, in the fall of 2004, and made a presentation to neighborhood residents at Riverview Tower in January 2005. Several years ago, the same proposal was put forward by Steve Minn but was not acceptable to District 3’s then-Park Board Commissioner Dean Zimmerman.

On a bluff, above the West River Road Parkway, on the bend of the Mississippi between downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota’s West Bank.
It can also be described as being on the bluff between the 35W bridge and Bohemian Flats.

The proposed condominium would be built immediately behind and adjacent to the Riverview Tower Condominium, a 23-story highrise built in the 1970’s at the end of the 10th Ave. bridge. The address of Riverview Tower is 1920 South 1st Street.

Building a highrise on this bluff is at odds with preserving the scenery of the Mississippi River and its surrounds.
It would not be responsible stewardship for future generations.
The neighborhood is already densely populated.
We want a park.

The slopes of the bluff terminate at the West River Parkway/Great River Road, making it a natural continuum of the riverbank area.
The bluff offers gorgeous views of the Mighty Mississippi, to be enjoyed by the public and future generations, rather than by the few who would benefit from a private development.
The bluff is situated along a 72-mile long National Park-the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA).
The area hosts a variety of resident and migrating birds; this is an opportunity to conserve and improve their habitat, rather than destroy it.
City dwellers need more open green space, not less.
Nearly 40 children of low-income families live immediately adjacent to the land under consideration, and have very little outdoor playroom.

Bluff Street Park would be a natural area with restoration of native plant communities.
An open picnic area would exist immediately adjacent to the existing Riverview Tower Condominium.
The area already has bike and pedestrian lanes built by the Park Board, connecting the East and West banks of the river via the railroad bridge, and sloping down to the West River Parkway.

The West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC), the city’s official neighborhood association for the Cedar-Riverside and Seven Corners area, passed a resolution in 2004 to support a park.
A stakeholder survey conducted by the U of MN Metropolitan Design Center resulted in virtually unanimous agreement within the community to develop open green space.

A task force subcommittee of the WBCC has been doing formal planning since September 2004.
The task force has received support from Groundwork Minneapolis, a program of the National Park Service (NPS), and The University of Minnesota Metropolitan Design Center.
A park design was drafted by the U of MN Metropolitan Design Center and unanimously accepted by the WBCC.
The design includes:
Restoration of natural plant habitat
Butterfly meadow
Flowering shrubs & perennials
Walking paths
Picnic areas, benches
Grove of trees as a noise buffer against 35W

Environmentally sound solution for preserving open space.
Costs to develop the park will be raised by the task force.
Could generate positive publicity, perhaps national publicity, for the Park Board as Americorps volunteers are expected to be available to Groundwork Minneapolis for site preparation and planting, in conjunction with neighborhood volunteers.
Positive benefit for Park Board candidates with regard to upholding the Park Board Mission to preserve, protect, maintain, improve and enhance Minneapolis park land.

We continue to raise awareness of the possible sale of this land, and to lobby both current Park Board Commissioners and new candidates. We continue to identify nonprofit partners and individuals who can help with our efforts.

Contact: [email protected]