Election 2021: Minneapolis Park Board, District 6

This has been Brad Bourn’s seat since 2009, but he’s stepping down this year. (His Facebook page has a bunch of pictures of his adorable little baby, so my guess is that he wants to spend more time with his family.)

There are four candidates on the ballot:

Risa Hustad
Bob Fine
Cathy Abene
Barb Schlaefer

(I’ll note that there is an Elizabeth Shaffer running in District 4. The Shaffer/Schlaefer thing has been throwing people. Also, Cathy’s last name is pronounced “uh-Benny.” I will be linking to a voter forum where the moderator mispronounces her name a lot, so I just wanted to let everyone know up front how it’s supposed to be pronounced, so that you can cringe along with me if you watch the forum.)

Risa Hustad

There are a number of things I really like about Risa, and here’s one: she’s the only candidate I’ve seen acknowledging that while visible encampments in popular city parks might be new, unsheltered people camping on parkland has been happening for pretty much as long as there have been parks. Another: she talks about how one of the key things the parks provide in Minneapolis is day care. (Mostly after-school day care through the Rec Plus program, but the very first preschool that both my children attended was offered at our local park.)

She’s one of the candidates I first heard about because several of my friends were really excited she was running, and in part this is because several of them worked with her in the summer of 2020 providing support and help to the people at the encampment at MLK Park in Kingfield. David Brauer said, “They basically helped feed, cloth, tent and advocate for the encampment residents, helping many/most find housing but also talking to the neighborhood about what was going on there – demystifying the encampment while humanizing the faces.” Raquel Sidie-Wagner, who is working on Risa’s campaign but initially met her working together on this, added, “Risa played a large role in our relationships with the park board, staff, and other electeds in order to find more supports for the residents and prevent displacement prior to when they could access those supports. She did on-the-ground work to ensure that folks had their basic needs met, the park was clean, and to get to know folks so we could learn what supports they wanted and needed.” Both agreed that Risa worked extremely hard, was there almost every day, and that a big piece of what she did was not merely providing day-to-day relief help but getting people into housing.

So when you see people saying, “when unhoused people arrive in our parks, we need to turn to partner agencies to get those people into housing” — that’s literally what Risa spent the summer of 2020 doing, and that’s why she’s running and why my friends are so passionate about supporting her.

In addition to a decisive majority of my Minneapolis Twitter friends, Risa is endorsed by some politicians I like (Aisha Gomez, Jeremy Schroeder) and the Sierra Club, so in this case you don’t have to choose between “environmentally conscious” and “good on policing/homelessness,” Risa really offers both.

I would rank Risa first, but I would also rank others, because I would really prefer to keep Bob Fine off the Park Board.

Bob Fine

Bob Fine was on the Park Board for 16 years, I think running from 1998 to 2013 (when he ran for mayor, instead.) He ran against Brad Bourn four years ago, and I revisited a whole lot of history at the time (alas, all the links go to the City Pages, no longer online, but I provided pretty extensive quotes.) He engaged in some maneuvering to get the Park Superintendent job for a high school buddy who was really really bad at it — Gurban was by all accounts an asshole and a bully (a park operations employee described him turning into a “beet-red Michelin man” when things didn’t go the way he wanted). Gurban landed the job in 2003 and kept it until 2010, with Bob Fine defending him and voting to keep him every step of the way. There was a lot more but I don’t want to recap when you can just go read my old post if you’re curious.

So regarding Bob’s current campaign: he’s endorsed by the save-the-golf-course people because he’s promised to keep the Hiawatha golf course in the current configuration. He managed to drop further in my estimation with his response to a question about the encampments at the LWV forum: “[Homelessness] is far and away something that is not the mission of the Minneapolis Park Board. Neither is it a mission of the School Board, or the library system.” As it happens, both the Minneapolis Public Schools and the library system deal with homelessness every day. They absolutely treat it as part of their mission. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ “Stable Homes, Stable Schools” program provides rental assistance as well as a bunch of services. As for libraries, ask literally any public library employee about this.

Bob goes on to say: “It brings up an interesting issue I heard our mayor say last night, because he actually said, we actually have more beds for homeless, that aren’t being used. We have a lot of beds that aren’t being used. Why? One reason of course is that people want to stay with their family, another is, they can’t have drugs in structured facilities. We don’t need that in our parks.” There is a huge list of reasons why people don’t go to shelters, and at the top of the list is that congregate housing — a bunk in an enormous room full of bunks, where you can’t have your pet, where you’re often rousted out of bed and kicked out first thing in the morning — absolutely sucks, even when there’s not a pandemic. Shelters are miserable. They’re dehumanizing. And there’s still a pandemic. So yeah, I’m not surprised we have a bunch of open beds, and the attitude on display here, that this isn’t a real problem because open shelter beds exist and therefore anyone not using one can be presumed to be a drug addict, is gross.

His endorsements are the golf course people and the firefighter’s union. Not sure if he has any others. Anyway, the cronyism and poor judgment involved in Gurban’s appointment is reason enough not to let Bob Fine back on the board.

Cathy Abene

Cathy Abene is a Civil Engineer who works for the University of Minnesota and has a ton of useful, applicable, helpful experience on water quality and water management, which as the Park Board will inevitably be tackling the golf course issue yet again, would be super helpful. The golf course people have said her stance on the Hiawatha Golf Course is “unknown,” but this is not true: she’s been very clear that she thinks the compromise plan is the way forward. Water management and watershed issues are huge within the parks. They do in fact employ experts who can tell them what they ought to do, but there are often benefits to having that sort of expertise on the board itself.

Cathy seems smart and down-to-earth and I like her sense of humor (she named one of her kids Harriet after Lake Harriet: “I tell her when she complains that she’s lucky her name’s not ‘Of The Isles’ or ‘Mka Ska.’”) She doesn’t want to allow encampments in the parks (and on the forum, starts off by agreeing with Bob) but says they should train staff to help people arriving in the parks find better resources, so she’s at least on team We Have a Contribution to Make to Solving These Problem (But It Isn’t Tent Space) and she talks about unsheltered people as people in need.

However, she’s endorsed by Linea Palmisano (not my favorite Council Rep) and she’s done a lot of campaigning with a Ward 10 candidate (Chris Parsons) who’s endorsed by Operation Safety Now; both of these things make me uneasy.

Barb Schlaefer

Barb was on the YMCA Camp du Nord board for a number of years, which made me wonder if I’ve ever met her. (My family are YMCA family camping fans.) She’s done a lot of governance stuff in the past, and talks about her “27 years working in communications leadership roles for the State of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota.”

In talking about encampments during that forum, she said that she’d talked to the Park Police chief and “it sounds like he has more of a compassionate approach. They’ll send outreach workers who have lots of information and resources out to folks living in parks, and then they warn them, and then they come back a day or two later and remove them.” (I don’t think I want to know what she’d consider an uncompassionate approach.)

When I first wrote this section, Barb’s specific positions on her website were that encampments shouldn’t be allowed, parks should prioritize maintenance over new stuff, and Minnehaha Parkway shouldn’t be closed to cars. She also linked to an editorial she wrote that was published in the Star Trib.

I re-opened everyone’s websites a few hours after closing them to see if anyone other than Risa had Spanish and Somali information available (no) and a whole new set of stuff loaded on Barb’s site. There’s now no mention of encampments. (Edited to add: she e-mailed to note that information is still there and on her “About” page — I just got distracted by the new info and missed where the old info was.) She highlights three priorities: environment (specifically planting trees, stormwater management, more native landscaping, reducing the park system’s carbon footprint, and increasing the amount of parkland to serve a growing population); equity (“intentional distribution of exceptional parks and recreation programs across the city”); and youth (programming and also employment). She’s also added a bunch of bullet points that are things that most people will say they’re going to do (listen to constituents, build collaborative relationships, advocate for more state funding, etc.)

She’s endorsed by the Senior Caucus of the Minneapolis DFL (they list Cathy Abene as their second choice), she’s endorsed by BET member Carol Becker and former City Council rep Lisa McDonald (I know I consider a Carol Becker endorsement a warning label and Lisa McDonald’s name feels like a red flag as well but she’s been off the City Council long enough I don’t really remember why anymore — oh, she spearheaded the anti-Minneapolis 2040 stuff, that might be part of it.) Finally, she’s an on-the-record supporter of the strong mayor charter amendment.

So I would list Risa as my #1. I think she’d be good on all the things I feel particularly strongly about. I would list Cathy as my #2, because she’d be really outstanding on at least one of the issues I feel particularly strongly about (water management, water quality, etc.) even if I’m less excited about her in other areas. And I would list Barb as my #3 because she’s significantly better than Bob.


Did you know that I had a book released this April? Chaos on CatNet is a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and takes place in a future Minneapolis. Signed copies are usually available from Dreamhaven and from the current mail-order-only incarnation of Uncle Hugo’s. Books make great holiday gifts, but should be ordered early this year — Tubby & Coo’s bookstore explains why.

I do not have a Patreon or Ko-Fi, but you can make a donation to encourage my work! I get a lot of satisfaction watching fundraisers I highlight getting funded. My readers have now bought a refrigerator for the school nurse at Olson Middle School, outfitted 8th grade Algebra students with binders to stay organized, and equipped a classroom with an air purifier. Here are some other worthwhile fundraisers for high-poverty Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools:

An art teacher at Andersen United middle school is starting a ceramics program and needs a pug mill to recycle dried out clay back into usable clay. (Over time, they’ll save a lot of money on clay if they have this!)

The North High School librarian would like copies of We Are Not From Here for students to read in 9th grade English class.

A teacher at Green Central Elementary would like a book/curriculum set that covers “themes such as racism, cultural identity, homelessness, immigration, gender and sexuality, and social activism.”

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