Daily Mole: Ray of hope: Will Nordyke era bring new openness and order to Minneapolis park board affairs?

By Chris Steller, special to the Daily Mole

“Change” may be the watchword for U.S. presidential candidates, but it’s also in the air at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, where this month commissioners reorganized themselves under a new president, electing first-termer Tom Nordyke [pictured] to lead the city’s independent park board and raising hopes for a sharp turn toward good government and fiscal responsibility.

But at a retreat over this past weekend, park commissioners learned one thing hasn’t changed: They’re still broke. Staff revealed that as early as 2011, annual budget shortfalls could hit $1.7 million. By 2013, balancing the city parks’ books would require laying off 80 employees or raising property taxes a politically unpalatable 3 percent.

It might also mean more meetings like the one in December when park commissioners faced a packed house of placard-waving citizens, angry over sudden announcements of closed ice rinks, sharply increased fees, and purported money-making schemes that favor suburbanites over city folks.

The prospect of more such scenes won’t appeal to President Nordyke, in whom many observers discern aspirations to higher office. Nordyke showed citywide appeal in 2005 when he won one of three at-large seats; he alone among candidates for nine park board posts earned endorsements from rival citizen groups favoring reform and supporting the status quo.

But even at times when the flow of state aid could be relied upon to cover shortfalls, the park board has been a shaky stepping stone for political advancement. Jeff Spartz made the leap from park to county commissioner in the 1970s, and Dean Zimmermann got a push from Southside Greens to move from the park board to the city council in 2001. But four years later, with Zimmermann under investigation for bribery, Marie Hauser failed to pull off the same move, and Nordyke’s predecessor as president, Jon Olson, also fell short in his brief 2006 run for the DFL Fifth District Congressional endorsement.

Nordyke would do well to distinguish his reign from Olson’s, whose first chore four years ago was quieting the rabble gathered to protest the controversial hiring of Superintendent Jon Gurban (a schoolmate of Commissioner Bob Fine’s who had not even applied or been interviewed for the job). Olson presided over a bitter 5-4 factional split that eased only after the 2005 election brought the board new blood (Nordyke, Tracy Nordstrom, Mary Merrill Anderson and Scott Vreeland). On Olson’s watch, financial information was hard to come by, the board went for a time without keeping written minutes, and agenda items sprung up at the last moment without public notice. Olson could charm, but his “Thank you very much” could also drip venomous sarcasm, such as when he twice cut off a citizen who opposed renewing the superintendent’s contract. (Nordyke rose to her defense.) The Olson era ended with his effort to eliminate funding for staff to comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

If he can vanquish the city parks’ budget dragons, the chivalrous Nordyke would likely become a park users’ champion. But even if this prince must play the pauper, he could distinguish himself by raising the park board’s standard of transparency, accountability and professionalism.