This posting of the December 5 meeting was delayed due to unforeseen circumstances.

The December 5 meeting was a marathon meeting lasting about five hours. It also was a meeting marred by a startling verbal attack on citizens by Park Board President Jon Olson. Here are the highlights:

CROWN HYDRO. The Park Board’s Director of Planning and Project Management Judd Rietkirk submitted a report to the Planning Committee requesting committee approval for the Crown Hydro power plant project. The report included a time line which indicated that “Land Lease Negotiations” would be initiated March of ’08 and the project would have Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval in May or June of ’09.

All associated costs for advancing the project ($250,000) were to be reimbursed by Crown Hydro. It was estimated that staff time to advance the project would be 500 hours. The report included the superintendent’s recommendation for approval of the controversial project. The committee voted three to two in favor of the motion to approve the project, which then was scheduled to go to the full Board to be voted on at the December 19 meeting.

Those voting to approve the Crown Hydro project and the leasing of park land in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District for the establishment of a power plant which would be owned and operated by a private, for-profit company were Commissioners Bob Fine, Carol Kummer and Tracy Nordstrom. Voting against the project and the leasing of park land for a privately owned, for-profit power plant were Commissioners Walt Dziedzic and Annie Young.

One of the many concerns about Crown Hydro has been that the additional diversion of water from St. Anthony Falls would result in a diminished flow over the Falls; under certain circumstances there could be no or very little water available to the Falls, which are the focal point of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District and a major tourist attraction.

THE 2008 BUDGET. There was a public meeting on the Superintendent’s 2008 Budget, which packed the boardroom with unhappy and vocal representatives of the many non-profit and for-profit organizations that use the MPRB’s parks and parkways for fund raising activities. They had come to express dismay, disappointment and outrage about the unexpected and substantial fee increases.

For example, the fees for the Minnesota AIDS Walk were increased from $9,613 in 2007 to $23,105 for 2008. Fees for the Pride Festival were increased from $10,487 in 2007 to $58,000 for 2008–an increase of 500 percent.

Shawn Jepson, a mountain biker who had helped build the biking trail at Theodore Wirth Park, expressed his opinion, “Seems like money has been misallocated and now you are trying to take it from us.”

As a result of the citizen input, the commissioners amended the budget to direct staff to renegotiate the increases with the non-profits.

Another cost-cutting measure by the superintendent was the proposal to close the Powderhorn ice skating rink. This proposal was met with vocal and well organized citizen opposition. In response to the public testimony, the Board amended the budget to close five other rinks but Powderhorn will remain open. This was an example of the effectiveness of a collective citizen voice.

At one point in the meeting, Park Board President Jon Olson blamed the mayor for the Park Board’s budget woes. And later on it was Park Watch who became the scapegoat for the Park Board’s budget deficit and the reason why the ice rinks were closing.

This attack by Park Board President Jon Olson directed at citizens who use the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) to obtain government information was highly inappropriate for an elected government official. We live in a democracy and it is every citizen’s right to access government information.

In the recent issue of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Newsletter, there is an article about the importance of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero is quoted as saying “I like to think of the Freedom of Information Act as democracy’s x-ray, because it allows Americans to see what’s really going on inside their government.”

The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act is the tool we use to gain access to local government information here in Minnesota. During the past two years, Park Watch–and other members of the public–has been using this tool to access information about the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Complying with the Data Practices Act is not discretionary as Board President Olson and Commissioner Carol Kummer would like to believe (and like the public to believe also), but mandatory. Governmental units are required by law to have a process for responding to citizen requests for information; and this process needs to be built into government budgets. Furthermore, it is not the purview of any official to cast judgment on those requesting information.

In the ACLU article about bringing “Government Secrecy Into the Sunlight,” the article has an important reminder for the reader. It is “that people need to understand their rights to access government files and information.”

It is astonishingly unprofessional for elected officials to use a public meeting as a forum to ridicule, humiliate, discredit and embarrass citizens who want to exercise their rights to access government information and who believe that “openness in government can assist the public in making the informed choices necessary in a functioning democracy.”

Commissioners Olson and Kummer owe all of us apologies.

Submitted on January 9, 2008
by Arlene Fried
Co-founder of Park Watch