City Pages: Jon Gurban forced out as Minneapolis park board's controversial superintendent

The following article was published as the cover story in the March 3, 2010 edition of City Pages:

Angry Management
After six stormy years, the Minneapolis park board is giving its controversial superintendent the boot

By Emily Kaiser
Published on March 02, 2010 at 1:54pm

When the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted last month not to rehire its top employee, park superintendent Jon Gurban, it marked the beginning of the end for one of the city’s most controversial public officials. For six years, Gurban has kept the park board in near-constant tumult, drawing fire from critics for an inexplicable inability to work with the public and a hair-trigger temper that has made him the first target of anyone hoping to see change in the park board.

Rick Sealock

courtesy of MPRB

“He is the CEO of the park system, and if he hasn’t developed emotional maturity to handle public discourse, that’s a problem,” says a former commissioner candidate of Jon Gurban.

Last month, the department’s elected commissioners said they had had enough. They voted 6-3 to begin the search for a new superintendent—a move that one of Gurban’s board allies angrily called a “sham.”

That contentious meeting was a fitting coda to the tenure of a superintendent who has stirred controversy from the minute he was hired.

The story of how Jon Gurban became superintendent has now become an infamous part of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lore. It began in December 2003 in a meeting so bizarre that it concluded with shouted obscenities and several board members stalking out of the room.

Gurban’s hiring came at a time when the park board found itself in a serious bind. With just two weeks left to find a new superintendent, the commissioners were nearly back to square one. Their current superintendent was retiring, and, after a lengthy search process, the two chosen finalists for the job had suddenly dropped out.

The nine-member board met a week before Christmas to plot its next move. Board President Bob Fine told the commissioners that he had contacted the five other semifinalists, and four said they would be interested in being reconsidered.

The board debated going back to the previous candidates or starting the search again, but some commissioners had another plan.

In a surprise move, Commissioner Walt Dziedzic suddenly tossed a new name into the mix: He made a motion to elect Jon Gurban as acting superintendent of the park board. Immediately the meeting descended into chaos.

Gurban was executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association trade group for parks professionals. He had not applied for the job, and his name had not been floated at past meetings about the position. His shining qualifications: He was a high school friend of Fine’s and had some experience in park systems.

The boardroom erupted. Commissioner John Erwin said he didn’t even know who Gurban was or if he was qualified, and he thought the motion was inappropriate. Staff members started passing out Gurban’s résumé, which some commissioners said they had never seen before.

The board had a very streamlined search process that should be followed, Erwin said. If the board installed Gurban, even as interim superintendent, he imagined a flood of public outrage.

Commissioners Vivian Mason and Annie Young adamantly sided with Erwin. Young opposed the motion because Gurban had not gone through the required management tests, background checks, or evaluations.

As a concession, Commissioner Carol Kummer offered an amendment to the motion, which would give Gurban a one-year contract after he went through all the necessary evaluations.

Young wasn’t giving in. This was one of the top park jobs in the country, and the board had many eligible candidates. Mason backed her up, saying the hiring of Gurban would be disrespectful to the qualified candidates and would be a national embarrassment.

Despite the intense opposition, Fine brought the motion to a board-wide vote, which passed with a 5-4 majority. Then came the obscenities and walk outs.

Just that quickly, the 54-year-old Gurban, who wasn’t even at the meeting, was awarded a $112,000 salary to run 182 park properties, 49 recreation centers, and 6,400 acres of land and water in Minneapolis. And unlike other cities where superintendents report to the mayor, Gurban answered only to the park board. He was now one of the most powerful park superintendents in the country.

GURBAN TOOK a job with a park board already known for its heated meetings and fierce arguments. In fact, some board members claim that their colleagues’ outbursts and comments during the superintendent search led the two final candidates to drop out to avoid the unstable work environment.

Overseeing parks may seem like a serene job, but the board often faces angry and passionate residents upset about potential changes to the public spaces in their neighborhoods. Park board observers say the main problems arise due to the staff-driven nature of the board, which can leave commissioners without the information they need to knowledgably vote for projects or relay information to residents.

The nine-member board is independently elected every four years and serves as a semi-autonomous body responsible for the Minneapolis park system properties. One member represents each of the six park districts, and three serve at large. As superintendent, Gurban answers to the board but has a lot of freedom on the day-to-day work of the parks that doesn’t need to be approved by the full board.

To many park board activists, Gurban’s hiring seemed typical of the board’s disregard of the public and smelled like a premeditated coup. Commissioners who opposed the move pointed fingers at the majority, claiming they had violated open-meeting laws by conspiring to hire Gurban as interim superintendent and meeting with him in private without informing the rest of the board about the proposed action. Gurban admitted at the time that he spoke to most of the majority before the vote and met with several of them in person.

Immediately following Gurban’s hiring, the predicted public outrage erupted. Minneapolis resident Arlene Fried organized a rally inside park headquarters to protest the vote. Fried and other concerned residents formed a group called Park Watch following the rally to monitor park board actions for the public.

Nick Vlcek

Gurban called the cops on park board candidate Jason White (left) for distributing campaign flyers in a public park.

“We couldn’t believe all of these actions were happening within a city-elected board and no one was keeping tabs on it,” Fried says. “We decided to make sure at least one Park Watch member was at every meeting.”

The botched hiring process has haunted Gurban’s career. Park board critics believe Gurban’s lack of leadership represents all that is wrong with the government body tasked with keeping the parks in good shape. Gurban continues, they say, to ignore public input, transparency, and civil discourse with residents.

One of the complaints that has plagued Gurban as superintendent is that he seems temperamentally unsuited for a job that requires extensive people skills and serves so many constituencies, from the general public and department employees to the park commissioners and local politicians. To some, that apparent character flaw was evident very early in his tenure. Gurban, a tall, burly Minnesotan with a head of thinning gray hair, can seem intimidating to those who cross his path.

One former candidate for park board commissioner says he found out firsthand how formidable Gurban could be. In 2005, Jason Stone, a laid-back bank manager, ran for commissioner after getting fed up with the park board’s recent actions and what he saw as a lack of transparency and its problems cooperating with the public. He was no quiet voice when he talked about change. He was running against Kummer, a park board incumbent and a strong supporter of Gurban.

In June, during his campaigning, Stone was handing out campaign literature in Pearl Park, where park employees were meeting. “Jason Stone for Park Board District 5. Responsible stewardship for our parks,” his flyer read.

When Gurban saw Stone at the door to the park facility, he told him he was violating park rules by handing out literature and he would have to move away. Stone stepped back 100 feet, continuing to pass out his flyer.

Gurban had had enough. He called park police to the scene, and Stone found himself surrounded by three police cars and four officers.

“You can’t distribute campaign literature on private property,” a police officer said.

“This is a public park,” Stone said.

“Sort of,” the officer responded.

Stone eventually gave up, deciding he wasn’t willing to get into a free-speech debate with police. He put away his campaign literature and attended the meeting.

Under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, Gurban reversed the literature ban in the parks that same week on the advice of legal counsel. Stone says he settled the disagreement with Gurban, but the run-in was an example of the superintendent’s trouble dealing with criticism.

“He is the CEO of the park system, and if he hasn’t developed emotional maturity to handle public discourse, that’s a problem,” Stone says.

Despite some misgivings about Gurban, in 2004 the board voted 6-3 to hire him after his interim year, following a formal search for candidates. In 2005, Gurban started his first year as permanent superintendent, but his strong support on the board didn’t mean his relationship with the commissioners was going smoothly.

Mason, along with all of the commissioners, met with Gurban individually to talk about goals for their term. Mason thought the meeting went well, and she had resolved to try to work with Gurban despite their disagreements.

More than a month later, Mason says, she received a call from John Fennig of DRI Consulting. Fennig, a professional business counselor and psychologist, had been hired by the board to conduct Gurban’s evaluations during the superintendent search. After the search, Fennig was retained—for up to $10,000 a year—to “meet with commissioners as individuals or in groups, as well as the superintendent, to provide consulting in the areas of leadership and interpersonal communications,” according to his contract.

Mason says that in her call with Fennig, he instructed her to direct all communication for Gurban through him. Mason was flabbergasted. She says she asked Fennig why she couldn’t speak to the superintendent directly about her concerns, and he told her there were questions raised during the search process about his ability to work with others, and Fennig would be the liaison between her and Gurban.

Fennig vehemently denies he told Mason he would be the middleman between her and Gurban. He says he went to Mason to get more information on the board minority’s opinions of the superintendent as part of his work as Gurban’s job coach.

“I would never have instructed anyone on the board to not speak to the person they hired,” Fennig says. “That’s just bad policy.”

Many current and retired employees of the park system also noted Gurban’s inability to work well with others, and his temper often frightened them. Most wouldn’t speak on the record for fear of retaliation. One retired park operations employee said Gurban transformed into a “beet-red Michelin man” when a situation didn’t go his way.

Mary Barrick was an assistant to the superintendent in 2006 when she had finalized a long-term project to create an information guide for the parks. She had started the project under a former superintendent, and Gurban called her into a meeting to discuss it.

Barrick was caught off-guard when Gurban became very upset with her over the project, saying he wasn’t going to allow the manual to be completed and that it was a waste of time.

He began raising his voice, Barrick says, and started pointing his finger at her as his face turned red.

“I didn’t go into the meeting angry, and suddenly he was yelling at me,” she recalls. “I was quite amazed. I’ve never been treated like that, but I didn’t take it personally because it was all about him.”

Barrick put in her retirement notice that day. She had been employed by the park system since 1972.

“I didn’t need to waste his time or mine,” she says.

ANITA TABB looked out a back window of her Loring Hill home in 2007 and noticed construction work at the park nearby. Tabb was surprised to see heavy equipment and field lights ready to be installed. Obviously a major project was in the works, yet she hadn’t heard a word about it.

Tabb started making phone calls, and the more she learned, the less she liked about the work underway. She started hearing about big plans for Parade Park—none of which had been vetted by neighbors or commissioners.

Tabb can see most of the Parade Park area from her home. The park borders the Sculpture Garden, Northrop School, and Parade Ice Arena, along with condos.

What appeared to be a sudden makeover of the Parade fields was a long time in the making. The Parade model was one of Gurban’s dream plans that he had mentioned at least two years before, in January 2005, at a City Council Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting.

Gurban wanted to rebuild Parade Stadium, which was torn down in 1990. The stadium had been used for sporting events and major concerts, including a Simon and Garfunkel performance in the early 1980s. Gurban noted that this dream wasn’t approved by the park board just yet and was only a concept, but he wanted the plan prepped in case there were chances for stadium funding in the near future.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman, who represents the neighborhood surrounding Parade, challenged Gurban’s plan.

“I’ve never heard this before,” she said. “Have you had any neighborhood involvement in this?”

Gurban said it was just a concept and his staff was still planning the stadium. He said he would seek community input eventually.

“After the staff has decided what to do?” Goodman asked.

“They’ll hone in on the general concept and bring it to the neighborhoods,” Gurban said. “Certainly it’s not our intention to ram this down anyone’s throat.”

Goodman said she would take this news to her neighborhoods, but she wasn’t pleased to do so.

“It’s not my job to do your community work,” she said. “I have a very active constituency, and they will not want to be told what to do.”

Despite warnings from Goodman and others, Gurban ignored the message to slow down and develop community support. Instead, he forged ahead. In August 2006, Gurban presented his vision for Parade during an untelevised park board study session. He wanted to “reinvent” Parade with a field house, a stadium with up to 7,000 seats, and a profit-making event center.

In January 2007, the park board voted to approve some initial plans at Parade Park, accepting a $1,240,000 low bid for construction on an artificial-turf field for football and soccer.

The board also approved more than $500,000, if funding became available, for some of the smaller stadium needs—a chain link fence, sound system, electronic scoreboard, grandstands, and more—bringing the Parade funding to more than $1.8 million. Some commissioners took a stand against the project, claiming Gurban failed to notify the board of his big plans.

Tom Nordyke, a former commissioner, originally supported the plan but lost confidence as Gurban refused to get the board involved.

“In an executive role like that, you need to know how to use the board, manage them, and use them and their strong suits,” he says. “That was never something he wanted to do. For whatever reason, Jon didn’t feel that was the right way to proceed, and the community felt they were being stonewalled. He didn’t consider that commissioners from the district can help get this vision through.”

Construction was set to begin in the spring of 2007, but by April, when work crews entered the space, city zoning officials got involved. The changes to the fields required approval by the city’s Planning Commission.

The city issued a stop-work order on the site, claiming it was in violation of the Minneapolis Zoning Code. Gurban said at the time that he thought the park board had applied for all of the necessary permits to do the construction on the field. He insisted the work was redevelopment, not new construction.

“If, in a park, we were going to put up the Eiffel Tower, we would ask for a conditional-use permit,” Gurban told the Star Tribune in May 2007. But a city zoning official said just erecting the four 70-foot-tall light fixtures on the site was enough to require a permit.

Belatedly, Gurban realized he needed community support, and in May he attended a Lowry Hill Homeowners’ meeting at the Walker Art Center to talk about his vision for the neighborhood. When residents started questioning Gurban’s plan, they were told to wait until after the meeting, when they could speak to Gurban individually.

Resident Joyce Murphy followed a small group of people into the lobby after Gurban’s presentation to ask some questions. Murphy saw one woman asking Gurban about the lack of resident and neighborhood input for the plan.

Gurban said the project was for the whole city and a meeting would be held once the project planning was complete. The woman argued that the proposal needed more neighborhood response since it would affect traffic, parking, and noise levels near their homes.

“As the conversation went on, Mr. Gurban became more agitated, and he began to move up close to the lady, putting his face in her face and moving into her space in a very threatening and overbearing manner,” Murphy wrote on the Park Watch blog. “He also began raising his voice and shouting at her. I was standing a little behind the lady and observing all of this, and it seemed to me that he was being very aggressive and intimidating toward her, so much so that I spoke up and said that he ‘should stop trying to intimidate her.'”

Gurban told Murphy he wasn’t trying to intimidate her, then decided to leave.

Former commissioner candidate Jason Stone says Gurban puts himself in heated situations with residents when he shows a lack of interest in their opinions on big projects.

“When you have a process that ignores community engagement, you get various community groups so shell-shocked and up in arms that they show up in force,” he says.

The artificial turf and field lights were eventually installed, but all other plans were tabled.

Even Gurban’s biggest supporters, such as commissioner Fine, admit that working with the public isn’t one of his strong suits.

“He’s probably not the best person politically,” Fine says. “He doesn’t know how to soothe people, but he knows how to work with staff and get a system to operate.”

The uproar over Parade wasn’t enough for park board members to oust him. Two days after the neighborhood meeting, Gurban was rehired on a three-year contract with a $140,000 salary.

GURBAN’S TONE-DEAF approach to dealing with the public was on full display in his relations with Ted Wirth, the grandson of former superintendent Theodore Wirth. His grandfather is largely credited with creating the Minneapolis park system, and there is hardly a more revered figure in city history.

Theodore Wirth, who served as park superintendent from 1906 to 1935, was known nationally as the dean of America’s local park movement, and his grandson Ted had followed in his footsteps as an international park designer. Until his death last September at 82, after a battle with Parkinson’s disease, Ted Wirth had spent the last 10 years of his life working on what he called his “last major project.”

He wanted to convert his grandfather’s home on the Lyndale Farmstead Park property, near 39th Street and Bryant Avenue, into a historic home open to the public. The park board built the mansion to entice Theodore Wirth to move to Minneapolis for the job; it was completed in 1910. Ted wanted Minneapolis residents to see the home where his grandfather designed the parks they use today. His grandfather’s final resting place at Lakewood Cemetery is visible from the property.

Mayor R.T. Rybak was a big supporter of Ted Wirth’s project. He spoke at Wirth’s memorial service.

“When you look at the sweep of this man’s work and you think of the opportunities he had all around the world,” Rybak said, “you recognize that the choice he made was to come back to Minneapolis and to focus on our city and our parks and especially our children. It says a remarkable amount about this man.”

Ted Wirth started making regular visits back to Minneapolis in 2000 when Minneapolis resident Joan Berthiaume called to ask him for a history of his grandfather’s work in the parks. In 2000, he co-founded the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society with Berthiaume in hopes of turning the mansion into a historic home with public tours. It would be privately funded, and it received strong citywide support from park commissioners, council members, landscape architects, and Rybak—almost everyone, in fact, except Jon Gurban.

At the time, Gurban was the executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association, which had been renting the home from the park board since 1997, for just $9,000 a year. (Until the mid-1990s, park superintendents had lived in the home.)

In 2002 when Gurban was still at MRPA, the Legacy Society, with approval of the park board, had succeeded in adding the home to the National Register of Historic Places.

That year, the Legacy Society had a permit to host an open house at the property in June. More than 400 people lined up outside to see the home.

The tour ended abruptly when Gurban came out from an upstairs office about 40 minutes before the tour was scheduled to end. People were still waiting in line when Gurban marched downstairs and demanded that the Legacy Society shut down the tour immediately and lock the doors. Tour attendees were baffled by his anger, and Berthiaume walked through the line, apologizing for the situation.

For several months, the problem of providing public access to the home festered. Superintendent Mary Merrill Anderson, Gurban’s predecessor, set up a meeting in May 2003 after Wirth asked to resolve the issues. The Legacy Society members were receiving requests for public tours, but they felt stonewalled by Gurban and the park board. Gurban attended the meeting with Berthiaume, Wirth, and Commissioner Mason.

While Wirth was talking through his vision for the home, Mason recalls, Gurban “absolutely exploded.” His face turned red, and he started to sweat and shake as he put his finger in Wirth’s face. He accused Wirth of calling the police after the June 2002 tour to report possible gambling activity in the home. (Several years earlier, in 1997, the state Gambling Board had pulled MRPA’s license to sell fundraising pull-tabs for one year, after finding violations under Gurban’s leadership. But Park Police records show no calls to the mansion around the time of the open house.) Gurban bellowed at the 75-year-old Wirth, saying that as far as he was concerned, Wirth would never enter the home again unless he made an apology to the MRPA board.

“It was very frightening,” Mason says. “Ted always managed to stay respectful to people even when they would say outrageous things.”

When Gurban became park superintendent in 2004, MRPA moved out of the building, and he chose to move park staff into the home instead of considering a plan to open it to the public. He cited lack of park office space, but employees who moved into the home said they felt they were there to block Ted’s vision. In 2005, Mason brought a motion forward regarding the home, but it was sent back to the planning committee.

By 2005, Ted Wirth’s health was declining. He moved permanently to Minneapolis from Billings, Montana, and lived in Berthiaume’s home, which doubled as the Legacy Society’s office space. Public pressure mounted to convert the home, but Gurban’s supporters on the park board stood their ground and downplayed Wirth’s importance in Minneapolis.

“Theodore Wirth wasn’t God. I’m getting tired of Theodore Wirth,” board president Jon Olson said in a March 2006 Star Tribune article about the home. In that same article, commissioner Fine took a stab at Ted Wirth: “He’s not from here. He didn’t grow up here. I think he found someone that is willing to take care of him.”

Wirth passed away September 4, 2009. He never saw his vision completed, but Berthiaume promised to keep the Legacy Society alive.

“It’s really criminal that he died and his dream never happened,” Mason says.

DESPITE GURBAN’S outspoken public critics, the superintendent managed until recently to maintain a majority of allies on the board, and his performance reviews were good. The park board’s 2008 evaluation of Gurban showed him meeting or exceeding expectations in seven of the ten areas measured. His biggest problem: board relations.

In a survey of Minneapolis residents presented to the board last year, 96 percent of respondents rated the parks favorably. About 48 percent said there was “nothing” they dislike about the park system—even at a time of fiscal hardship for the parks, when many services and operations have been scaled back.

“I feel Jon has done an excellent job taking us through some very troubling times with cutbacks in funding,” Commissioner Olson says. He praises Gurban for pushing forward the board’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2007 and looked at how the system will operate through 2020. A comprehensive plan had not been in place since the 1960s.

Even so, Gurban had spent six years alienating park activists, and after last year’s November citywide elections for new park board commissioners, Gurban likely knew his time as superintendent was coming to an end. Minneapolis voted in three new commissioners who campaigned for change and a new superintendent: Brad Bourn, Anita Tabb, and Liz Wielinski. Starting in January, the board had a new majority that wasn’t on Gurban’s team.

The board created an ad-hoc committee of four commissioners to determine the future of Gurban’s contract. On January 20, they voted 3-1 to recommend that the park board start an immediate search for a new superintendent. Gurban’s contract ends June 30.

The committee included two new commissioners known as reformers, along with longtime reformist and Gurban critic Annie Young. Kummer was the only member to vote against the measure.

On February 3, the committee brought its decision to the full board. Longtime commissioners and Gurban supporters dominated the discussion, but it was clear the reformers had the votes to start the search.

Olson called the board a “sham” and a “charade” for being on the verge of starting a superintendent search. As Tabb defended the committee’s process, Olson leaned back, rolling his eyes and rubbing his face.

“I think we’re making a terrible mistake tonight,” Olson said.

The full board voted 6-3 to start a search for a new superintendent. While the motion doesn’t state a specific end to Gurban’s time as superintendent, the commissioners made it clear that was the intention.

Current board president John Erwin said there “are new needs” for the board. “It just happens as the natural growth of an organization,” he said.

Gurban sat through the debate but stood up and left in silence following the vote.

The Star Tribune’s editorial board, a longtime critic of Gurban and the commissioners who support him, congratulated the board for the vote in a February 6 article:

“Disingenuous is perhaps the most charitable term to describe several longtime Minneapolis Park Board commissioners’ objections to a search for a new superintendent. Community relations, never a strong suit for Gurban, will be a priority in years to come when private funding must replace ever-shrinking taxpayer funds. It’s time for a leader with innovative ideas.”

Gurban declined to comment for this story. Parks spokeswoman Dawn Sommers says Gurban believes his strong record and job evaluations speak for the work he’s done as superintendent.

Now board members are considering what qualities they will look for in the next superintendent. Councilwoman Goodman says they have a big task ahead of them.

“I don’t think it’s my role to tell them, but if I were sitting in their shoes right now, the most important thing they can do is pick a local leader who is held in high esteem by different partners and constituencies of the parks.”