The following editorial commenting on Wednesday’s Park Board meeting was published in the Star Tribune on November 6, 2009:
WISER HEADS PREVAIL AT PARK BOARD
Vigilance needed to ensure contract extension vote stays tabled.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board stepped up and did the right thing this week by postponing a vote to extend Park Superintendent Jon Gurban’s contract another year. That decision belongs to the newly elected board, which will be seated in January. The issue must stay tabled until then.
Current commissioners will have to keep vigilant over the next two months lest colleagues more sympathetic to Gurban try again to usurp the new board’s authority and push the contract extension through before the end of the year. That may be a challenge. While vote tallies in Park Board races are still being sorted out, it appears that the new board would be far less likely to approve an extension than current commissioners. The superintendent has several ardent and wily supporters on the current board. They’ll be tempted to maneuver this through before January and have plenty of time to try.
The board’s lack of transparency in handling the extension vote underscores concerns about back-room deals over the next two months. Commissioners abruptly pulled the scheduled vote from Wednesday’s meeting agenda, apparently after a flurry of last-minute behind-the-scenes talks. Not one word of explanation was given to the public gathered for the 5 p.m. meeting. After the quick adjournment, Board President Tom Nordyke said little about the matter, other than that commissioners didn’t want a lot of “fireworks” around the issue. A previous Star Tribune editorial was critical of the contract extension.
Nordyke and Commissioner Jon Olson did praiseworthy work in heading off this vote. The board appeared poised to extend the contract; Gurban earns $139,817 annually, plus a $500 monthly car allowance. At a recent meeting, six commissioners, including Olson, indicated their support for doing so. But on Wednesday, according to a story by Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt, it was Olson who wanted to remove the matter from the board’s agenda, saying the matter should wait until the new board takes office on Jan. 6. More transparent decision-making would inspire confidence that this issue really is shelved until the new year, as it should be.
Gurban deserves prompt action on this issue by the new board. His contract is up at the end of June. If he will not be staying on, courtesy demands letting him know as soon as possible so that he can plan accordingly. Other issues also deserve high-priority placement on the new board’s agenda.
Chief among them is a recommendation made by Nordyke and City Council President Barb Johnson last summer. As the battle escalated over Park Board independence, they, along with City Council members Lisa Goodman and Scott Benson, proposed a commission to “forge solutions that could include streamlining our operations and bringing greater efficiencies to both the Park Board and City enterprises.” This compromise helped convince the Minneapolis Charter Commission to back off from a proposal to fold the Park Board into city operations.
Far too little work has been done to identify these cost savings, and with Nordyke unlikely to return to the board, there’s a real danger that this work will fall further behind. The new board absolutely cannot let this happen. Minneapolis residents face the highest property tax burden among 117 metro-area communities, according to a new Citizens League ranking. The new board can no longer view itself solely as a guardian of the parks; it must also protect taxpayers. Working with the City Council to find efficiencies and cost savings would be a good start.
TO LEARN MORE
Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson and Park Board President Tom Nordyke last summer proposed a commission to bring efficiencies to Park Board and City Council enterprises. They outlined their proposal in a letter to the Minneapolis Charter Commission. To read it, go to http://tinyurl.com/yly8786