Minneapolis Park Board, District 6

I’m pretty sure this is the last race I need to write up! I may revisit the mayoral races, because I’ve gotten firmer in some opinions, shakier on others.

Park Board District 6 is currently represented by Brad Bourn, who is very popular among the politically engaged progressives that flooded caucuses this year, and remarkably unpopular among his Park Board colleagues:

fb_liz_pb

On the ballot:

Robert M Schlosser “Bob”
Brad Bourn
Bob Fine
Jennifer Zielinski

This is really a contest between Bob Fine and Brad Bourn, and it’s very much an OLD GUARD vs. YOUNG UPSTART contest, although in this case the incumbent (Brad) is the Young Upstart and the challenger (Bob) is probably the Old Guardiest of all the Old Guard people running.

Robert M Schlosser “Bob”

Bob Schlosser has no website or Facebook page. He had no online presence four years ago when he ran for City Council, either.  He does appear to have filled out the Our Streets Minneapolis questionnaire and in answer to the question:

1. Do you navigate Minneapolis by bicycle, walking, or in a wheelchair? If so, for what purposes (commuting, recreation, errands) and how often? How do you understand the experiences of residents who don’t have the option to drive, particularly children, seniors, and people with a disability?

He responded:

Recreation, Once weekly.

I’m going to assume he bikes weekly. (He did also fill out the LWV questionnaire.) Anyway, he fails my “is this guy even running” test. NEXT!

 Jennifer Zielinski

Jennifer Zielinski is endorsed by the Republicans. She has a campaign Facebook (but no other website) and a Twitter. On both her Facebook and her Twitter, she shared a picture of herself going out to drop lit:

…but doesn’t share a picture of the lit anywhere. Or any content from the lit. Her campaign Facebook tells you nothing about her stance on anything other than the following statement:

Our Park system is a great system, in fact it’s the number 1 in the country! I hope to keep it the number 1 system. I see many concerns facing our park system

Someone else posted a five-star review of her campaign and said  that she “has some proposals you all ought to hear,” but again: zero information on what these proposals are.

I’m not sure if she’s being deliberately mysterious or if she’s just really not good at campaigning.

(Oh, she does appear to want to keep the golf course. There, now you know everything I know about this person.)

Onto the real race: Bob Fine vs. Brad Bourn.

Bob Fine

Bob Fine served on the Park Board for years: four terms, from 1997 until 2013, when he quit to run for mayor. His website highlights his experience and accomplishments. The thing is, if you’ve been on the Park Board, you’d have to actually be Snidely Whiplash in order to lack accomplishments to brag about later. This is the Park Board, so you’re going to be able to point to playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, bike paths…

Here’s what Bob Fine doesn’t brag about on his website: Jon Gurban.

Back in 2003, the Park Board needed a new superintendent. Superintendent of the Minneapolis Parks is a genuinely good job, and they’d done a national search, but their two finalists dropped out near the end of the process. I really recommend the City Pages article about this whole slow-motion disaster, because they really don’t hide or excuse Bob Fine’s role in it.

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. […]

 

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.

Despite the fact that Gurban was an asshole and a bully (in the City Pages article, a retired park operations employee describes Gurban as turning into a “beet-red Michelin man” if things didn’t go the way he wanted them to), he kept this job until 2010, with Bob Fine defending him, and voting to keep him, every step of the way.

In 2012, in response to complaints from the NAACP about discriminatory treatment of park staff (…so yeah, it’s not like the 2016 complaints were new), the Park Board had hired a consulting firm to interview staff and make recommendations. They then sent out a letter to staff saying that they were planning to implement changes:

[Superintendent Jayne] Miller, along with eight Park Board commissioners, sent a memo to employees promising to address the issues in the report. They also set up a series of meetings to listen to employees’ concerns. […]

The consultants say that “virtually everyone” with whom they spoke — white or black — said there is a climate of fear, vindictiveness, racial distrust and anger in the organization. Further, the report said the Park Board has a lack of understanding of different cultures and an unwillingness to connect to inner-city communities.

Bob Fine was the only Park Board commissioner who refused to sign the memo.

Fine said he doesn’t disagree that employee morale is low. In fact, Fine, a youth sports coach of more than 35 years who interacts regularly with recreation and maintenance workers, said employee morale over the past two years has been the lowest he’s ever seen it.

Miller’s memo says that many of the issues in the report have been present for years. Fine took issue with that part of the memo because he said it unfairly places the blame on former Superintendent Jon Gurban and previous Park Boards.

Apparently back in 2003 Fine was pretty sure no one would remember or care how Gurban got the job. He didn’t count on Park Watch and their long-running archive! (Park Watch, which is run by Arlene Fried, was founded heavily in response to Gurban’s hiring. Arlene Fried cannot stand Brad Bourn, which makes me really curious who she’s supporting in District 6, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Well, okay, you’re thinking. Bob’s very, very, very loyal to that one old high school friend. What else ya got? I’ve also got a long-running fight over a hydro plant proposed for parkland, Crown Hydro. I mistyped “hydro” as “hydra” just now and almost left it, because for real, this is the plan that just won’t die; they were back again a year ago, I think. (I mean, to be fair, it’s a subtly different plan every time.) Here’s an article about it from 2015. Here’s the 2007 version. You can also read Crown Hydro’s own take on their project: they are very certain it won’t damage the falls. The Department of the Interior was cited in that 2015 article saying that they’re concerned it could cause something similar to the 1869 Eastman Tunnel Collapse. (This is why I’m super not re-assured when the president of Crown Hydro says that they want to build something similar to the hydro plants of the 19th century.) The Sierra Club is also definitely not a fan.

Bob Fine is definitely a fan. He voted yes … I’m not even sure how many times, but there was a particularly big fight in 2004 and he was in favor of the plan. Back in 2007 and he was a fan then, too. And in 2010. And in 2011. And in 2012. In 2013, it looks like one of the very last things he did before leaving his job as Parks Commissioner was to oppose a resolution to terminate Crown Hydro’s license to construct the project.

I mean, here’s what I’ll say: if you want a hydroelectric dam at St. Anthony Falls, Bob Fine is your guy. They haven’t built it — yet — but he has fought for this one. TOOTH AND NAIL. Relentlessly. In the face of repeated failures.

A lot of those links were to Park Watch, and I feel like I should mention that in response to the formation of Park Watch, a group was started called Park Watch Watch. (I am not kidding.) They interviewed Bob Fine when he was running for re-election to his Park Board seat in 2009 and that’s still up. Some highlights:

3. Are you running on a “reform” platform, or not? Please explain, be specific.
No. Reform is a term being used by the groups that spend their time unfairly criticizing the system.

[…]

7. While employee morale remains high, there has been an acrimonious relationship between some of the members of the board and the staff and even between board members themselves. Why do you think this is, and what if anything would you do to improve these relationships?
This perception dates back to a previous board. One of the former members, part of that acrimonious group, is again seeking election to the Board. I have good relationships with staff and colleagues. This is an effort by the fault groups to falsely portray the system and the Board.

The Negative Nellies he’s grousing about here are Park Watch. The current commissioners who started out as Park Watch members are Liz Wielinski and Anita Tabb. Bob Fine and Park Watch Watch were convinced that they were going to destroy the parks if elected. They didn’t. (I wish Park Watch Watch had signed their posts so I could look to see what they were up to these days.)

Brad Bourn

So yeah, I started out with Liz Wielinski’s rant about how much she can’t stand Brad Bourn, and that really sums up a lot about his current set of relationships on the Park Board. There are nine commissioners total and I think Brad has clashed with all eight of the others. Maybe somewhat less with Annie Young? Meanwhile, he’s popular with most of my friends plus all of the progressives on the City Council. He stands alone on stuff a lot, but that clearly doesn’t mean he takes the wrong stances.

There’s some sample infighting on this Minneapolis Issues Forum thread and I actually think it provides a pretty decent illustration of why progressive voters tend to really like Brad, and his colleagues really don’t. It starts with a link to a Facebook post by Brad Bourn from 2015, with a video showing developer Steve Minn referring to homeless people as “bums.” The actual question before the Park Board at the time: there’s a requirement that if you build a large development, you have to either set aside land for park use, or you have to pay a fee (called a Park Dedication Fee) that is then used to develop parks in that neighborhood. The rules for setting aside land are fairly complicated, like I’m pretty sure the developer still technically owns it but they’re required to keep it nice.

Steve Minn wanted a waiver of the Park Dedication Fee in exchange for building something called a woonerf, which makes this whole thing more confusing because despite all the explanations in the Issues List thread, this article, and fifteen minutes of scrutinizing the Google Satellite images from that part of downtown, I am still not sure what the hell a woonerf is. It’s apparently park-like in some way, though, and Steve Minn wanted the fee waiver for building it, but he also wanted a gate so he could close it off at night. (Edited to add: it’s apparently a parking lot with a fancy name.)

As it happens, Minneapolis parks do have an official closing time; midnight to 6 a.m. (Or 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., at some parks.) Most don’t actually have fences or gates, though. Steve Minn was explicit about wanting a gate to keep out “bums.”

Scott Vreeland (currently the District 3 Commissioner) then chimed in:

Brad Bourn has a facebook post written to elicit an emotional response
about homelessness. He seeks money and facebook likes for being the lone vote
against this project.

The issue of whether this project is worthwhile or not is not related to
whether Steve Minn uses a politically incorrect word for the homeless, or
why. Conflating the actual details of the proposal with an emotional concern
about what we call homeless people is a sneaky way of putting the spotlight
on a different issue than the merits of a decision before the Park Board.

Brad doesn’t usually post on the Issues list but chimed in to respond:

I believe our parks are for everyone and at the heart of this vote, there are
two fundamental progressive values that guided my decision making process on
this project as it relates to the Park Board:

1) Public spaces must be truly public
2) People from all walks of life deserve to be treated with dignity and respect

On the public space value:

Mr. Minn was seeking a $60,000 public subsidy for his development in the form a
waiver of a required tax. This is allowed under ordinance if the developer
dedicates a portion of their development towards public use.

During Mr. Minn’s presentation both he and the Park Board’s legal counsel
stated on record that people on this land would not have the protection of the
first amendment as they would on public land.

(So, part of Brad’s issue was actually not the “Steve Minn calls homeless people bums” issue, but the fact that since this wasn’t actually parkland, people would not have the free speech rights that they do in parks.)

John Erwin was the next to show up. (I mean, he was the next of the current Park Board commissioners to show up. Carol Becker was all over this thread, but she’s on the BET. John Erwin is currently an At-Large Parks Commissioner.)

To call the waiving of the Park Dedication fee a ‘subsidy’ is disingenuous. […] In the case of the woonerf, the $63,000 fee waived resulted in an approx. $300,000 amenity.

Second, do I agree with the language Mr. Minn used? No. Do I think taking a
surface parking lot and making it a new $300k green public amenity for $63k in
downtown is a good thing? Yes. Did the entire City Council agree? Yes. Did
local residents express support? Yes. Was a different closing time than any
park in the city asked for? No. I was not elected to delve into the moral
‘purity’ of anyone giving money/parks to our system. I was elected a Park
Commissioner to help maintain and grow the park system for all residents. I am
happy the 2 new park amenities (resulting from the PDF: a woonerf and
neighborhood community garden) will be available for all Minneapolis residents
forever.

What I find especially disturbing is 2 candidates [Brad Bourn and Russ Henry] posting a 3-year-old video (giving people the impression that it was recent) on Facebook to generate campaign funds the week before the end of the funding year AND misinforming the public in the process.

Scott Vreeland then responded again:

Commissioner Bourn wrote… and it has been repeated by others as if it were factual information..that:

“Mr. Minn was seeking a $60,000 public subsidy for his development in the form a waiver of a required tax.”

Other than Mr. Minn’s name there is nothing in that sentence that is true. There are not two sets of facts about this. There is no gray area here. There is public information and documentation that shows that Commission Bourn’s statement is not true. It is verifiably true that is not a tax. It is also verifiably true that the subsidizing of private projects cannot occur given the requirements in the ordinance. Both points are very clear, if you have read the ordinance. […] 

Calling this a subsidy to a private developer is false, because it is specifically prohibited by the ordinance. The ordinance requires, “The land area or value of the land and improvements privately developed and maintained for public use for parks, playgrounds, recreational facilities, wetlands, trails, or open space areas
must at least equal that required under this ordinance.”

So let me take a minute here and unpack the objections from John Erwin and Scott Vreeland, and where I sympathize with them vs. where I think they don’t really have solid ground for complaint.

They are really mad that this project that they voted for, that they think is awesome, is being tarred by Steve Minn’s bullshit. “Okay, we’ll put up a fence and an automatic gate to limit the open hours” is not an entirely unreasonable concession for a public-use area that’s technically on private land, where there might be security concerns after a certain hour. But wow, that video makes Minn, and by extension anyone who gave him what he wanted, look terrible. I’m guessing that this was, in fact, a perfectly nice project overall. (I still don’t know what exactly they built, but honestly, most of the stuff the Park Board builds is pretty awesome.) And to be honest, I feel genuine sympathy for Vreeland and Erwin on this particular point. There’s a reason politics gets compared to sausage, and Bourn’s video is essentially pulling out the grossest bits of this particular sausage for everyone to gag over when in fact the finished piece of sausage is a pretty nice dish. Politicians make deals with unsavory people all the goddamn time. The goal is not to find the purest and most palatable individuals to do business with; the goal is to get good amenities for people with the always-limited resources the Park Board has. In this case, they got a $300,000 amenity instead of $60,000 in cash and that was probably a win. (Edited to add: or maybe they just got a parking lot with a fancy name, plus a pass-through. https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2017/04/minneapolis-first-woonerf-really-just-nice-looking-parking-lot )

But Scott Vreeland takes particular angry exception at the fact that Bourn calls the fee a tax. And in that case… Whether something is a tax or a fee is such an overwhelmingly semantic issue there are literally memes about it, so I’d disagree that it is “verifiably not true” that the requirement that developers in Minneapolis pay a chunk of money (or dedicate some land to public use) when they build a new building can fairly be called a tax.

Vreeland is also really mad that Bourn suggested this was a subsidy. And here, both Bourn and Vreeland have a point. Instead of paying $60,000 in money, Minn offered an amenity valued at $300K, dedicated for public use; he’s offering a legitimately fair substitution, not demanding a subsidy. Except, it’s not fully public: Minn wanted a fence, and a gate that closed at 10 p.m. Also, he wanted to be able to restrict people’s freedom of speech on that property. If you don’t care about those issues, then it’s definitely not a subsidy. If you feel that these restrictions sharply reduce the value of land, then … how much? What’s this amenity worth to the city, and how much do these restrictions drop the value? This isn’t a clear-cut, “obviously one of these people is WRONG” question, despite what Vreeland and Erwin are insisting. (Also, when Erwin says, “Was a different closing time than any park in the city asked for? No” — the Star Trib article about it said the gate would be closing at ten, and the standard hours for parks are “6 am-midnight in developed areas and 6 am-10 pm in undeveloped areas” and I wasn’t able to find any parks with closing times of 10 p.m. so I’m not sure what “undeveloped areas” would mean in this context but I can’t think of any way in which the woonerf would qualify. So, in fact, they did agree to a two-hours-earlier closing time, as well as enforcement by fence and gate, to get this deal.) 

Fundamentally, I think what they’re maddest about is that Brad linked to a video (a not-even-recent video) that makes them look bad, and him look good, as a fundraising tactic in an election year. What constitutes fair play in a city race is one of those questions that’s solidly up for debate (and has been extensively debated this year — personal bankruptcies? being the victim of a burglary? gosh, what’s not apparently fair game?) But in general, I feel like “making an elected official look bad for a vote they cast” is in the “fair” column. (And then you get to respond! “Brad Bourn voted NOT to build this beautiful amenity you are now enjoying” is a legit thing to point out!)

Anyway, this was one specific controversy, but it’s representative in a number of ways.

  1. His colleagues (in a solid majority) were willing to compromise on something Brad was not willing to compromise on.
  2. The other commissioners attributed this to Brad’s purism about his principles and also to the fact that he could count on the rest of the board to do the “wrong” thing and actually get shit done, while he could present himself as above dealing with people like Minn.
  3. Brad, on the other hand, laid out a set of very specific objections that he said he had, which were completely ignored by most of the people in the conversation.
  4. Brad’s colleagues were also furious that Brad had made them all look bad, and felt that this was self-serving on his part.

And I feel like I’ve seen these particular complaints go by in multiple arguments I’ve read between Brad and the other commissioners, mostly on Facebook (so it’s harder to dig them up).

Here’s another public fight — back in August, Vreeland posted to Facebook suggesting that Bourn was trying to make things easy on pedophiles because he kept proposing the removal of a rule saying people can’t “lurk, loiter, or lie in wait” in or around any toilet. Lurking laws got removed from the city ordinances because they were being so clearly selectively enforced; in the thread, several people note that they studied this in the parks and the enforcement was much less selective (a good illustration of the value of anti-bias training, which the Park Police received). Bourn came back and asked, “At what threshold does a does bathroom use move from bowel movement to lurking? Is there an objective metric somewhere?” Vreeland attacks him repeatedly over the course of the thread…and never answers this question, which sort of proves Bourn’s point, IMO. (Bourn also pointed out that there are lots of park buildings with benches right outside the bathroom so in theory you might be breaking the law if you sit on those benches.)

The City Pages ran a very anti-Brad-Bourn article in 2016. I find it sort of puzzling that they blame him for the anti-smoking policy crashing and burning; the Star Trib article (which they link to!) makes it clear the board was deeply divided on the enforcement question and really not entirely clear about how they wanted to handle e-cigs. (They successfully figured out a policy that went into effect this spring.) They also link to this video of a 2016 Park Board meeting in which Bourn refers to the “bullying nature” of the Park Board meeting and he is promptly interrupted, shouted down, and mocked. I’m pretty sure the person yelling “STOP TALKING” in that conversation is Liz Wielinski, who was President of the Park Board at the time and thus presiding over the meeting.

But, OK: his actual stances.

He’s anti-pesticides (one of the things the City Pages makes fun of him for is objecting to using a bunch of spray to get rid of some cattails). He’s pushed for zero-waste park events. He’s in favor of allowing community gardens in parks. Pretty sure he voted to get rid of the Hiawatha golf course (oh, yeah, Bob Fine definitely wants to keep the golf course).

His website mentions creating “open swim” areas in lakes — I had no idea what this was so I looked it up and it’s genuinely really cool. “Open Swim Club” provides adult swimmers with the opportunity to swim outside the usual ropes, so you can do a long-distance swim out and back (it’s 3/4 mile if you do the whole course). This is so cool. I trained for a short-course triathlon years ago and training for the swimming was really pretty complicated. I built up my endurance doing laps at a pool, but you don’t swim in a pool for the actual triathlon, you swim in a lake. And lake swimming is just different in a lot of ways. I did try swimming at Lake Nokomis beach once, but it’s crowded on nice days and I had to alternate between swimming and dodging. Something like this would have been great.

He’s pushed hard for equity — more equal development in the poorer neighborhoods — and he’s pushing now to reduce the paperwork that has to be filled out for kids to participate in park programs, to minimize the risks to families with undocumented members.

So yeah: I would absolutely and unhesitatingly rank Brad Bourn #1. Even if he were every bit as annoying as his colleagues say he is, I would still take a grandstanding environmentalist over the guy who gave us seven years of an actively abusive parks superintendent.

 

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3 thoughts on “Minneapolis Park Board, District 6

  1. I live in Park District 6 now, and I was a little surprised by the number of lawn signs I saw supporting Bob Fine. A post on Nextdoor Lynnhurst provided an explanation – apparently some people here blame Brad Bourn for not allowing USI Fiber access across the Parkway. I haven’t yet done more research. Thought you might be interested!

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