The New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

I went down a Minneapolis Issues List rabbit hole last night, trying to decide what I thought about the Loppet deal. (The MPRB signed a deal with the Loppet Foundation whereby the Loppet built a fancy new building at Theodore Wirth Park — although possibly the Park Board loaned them the money to do it? — and the Loppet Foundation will pay for a bunch of staffers for winter sports. On one hand, this is hopefully getting the parks a new building, nice trails, and staff they don’t have to pay for. On the other hand, those staffers won’t be unionized, unlike park employees, although they are supposed to be paid the “prevailing wage,” and the parks will be on the hook for all sorts of money if the Loppet Foundation realizes its pockets aren’t as deep as it expected, and there were some budget numbers that didn’t add up followed by no budget numbers at all, and their building didn’t use bird-safe glass. Since one of the candidates in District 5 voted for it and the other thinks it was an absolutely terrible idea, I felt like I needed to read up.)

Anyway, in browsing the Issues List archive, I ran across some bitter complaints from retiring commissioner Scott Vreeland that I wanted to explore:

They [meaning the young upstarts from Our Revolution who swept the endorsements] may be well intended, but what happens when the dog catches the car? … The political rhetoric of the ideology of the young Turks is that the Park Board is dysfunctional, racist and poisoning our children. What happens when THEY are the dysfunctional, racist, pesticide-using status quo? 

And, I mean, I think Scott can take comfort in the knowledge that either they will fail spectacularly and get voted out in four years, or they will likely hang around long enough to become the dysfunctional status quo themselves (whether it’s racism and pesticides people are mad about in 8, 12, or 16 years, or some other problem). Because that is always what happens, sometimes on a fairly short cycle. I mean, the last time people were furious about the Park Board’s dysfunctional status quo, they formed Park Watch (and then the dysfunctional status quo defenders of the day formed — I kid you not — Park Watch Watch. And they all showed up at Park Board meetings, angrily watching one another.) Park Watch is still around, and I think that’s literally where current board president Anita Tabb came from, and at some point they, too, pretty much became the status quo. (I’m pretty sure it was one of the co-founders of Park Watch who wrote a bunch of deeply irritable posts about “hecklers” — i.e., Nekima Levy-Pounds — showing up at Park Board meetings.)

I mean, there was a comparable dust-up related to WisCon (a feminist science fiction convention I attend.) At some point back in the 1990s it had started to shift more toward being a general SF con, and some women seized the reins, took over, and shifted it back toward more feminism. That set of organizers very much still saw themselves as revolutionaries and were horrified and hurt when a bunch of (younger, more racially diverse, less tolerant of sexual harassment…) women treated them as the problematic defenders of the status quo instead of as beloved elders. Somehow, when they weren’t looking, they’d turned into the bad guys, and no one wanted to listen to their explanations of why they definitely were not the bad guys.  (The young upstarts won the day; despite some dire predictions, the con’s still going.)

I mean, there are just a bunch of things that seem to inevitably happen once you’re the one in power. First, a bunch of people who were previously THE MAN turn into your colleagues, and unless you’re the world’s most toxic asshole, you make a bunch of friends and then because they’re friends and not THE MAN anymore you start seeing some things from their perspective. You also realize just how many competing demands there are on the person in your job — like, you’re getting phone calls from people yelling about stuff you had no idea anyone cared about — and you discover how little power you actually have over a bunch of stuff that you thought was going to be in your domain. (And this means you have inevitably made promises you find you can’t actually keep.) If you’re trying to make sweeping changes, the permanent staff are probably pushing back.

(I asked DFL and Our Revolution-endorsed At-Large candidate Russ Henry about how he plans to remove nests of wasps from locations like playgrounds, without the use of pesticides. He said that the safe alternative to pesticides for this is to have an employee put on a bee suit and remove the nest manually, using tools or high-pressure water. And, yep! That’s an option! That’s an option that a lot of employees may resist pretty strongly, given that bee suits are not magic force fields and wasps are both more aggressive than bees and able to sting you multiple times. Imagine that fight, then multiply it by all the other environmentally responsible options for dealing with problems that require a more-annoying variety of manual labor from staff and consider the fact that there’s a union contract and if you annoy them enough they may specify in their contract that if you want certain super-annoying jobs done, the person doing them has to be paid a whole lot of extra money.)

In Animal Farm, the pigs turn into the farmers because the pigs, for the most part, were evil motherfuckers all along. The fictional example of this that’s probably my personal favorite is the Deep Space 9 episode in which former-terrorist Kira Nerys realizes she’s turned into precisely the sort of collaborator she spent so many years resisting/killing during the previous occupation. What I love is that it’s clear in that episode that she didn’t reach this point because she was evil; she genuinely has good intentions. (And then she realizes how far down the road to hell she’s walked, and turns around, because she’s one of the protagonists of the show.)

And, I mean, the stuff that’s gone on with the Park Board is not anything like “we’re going to collaborate with the Dominion to oppress Bajorans” — like most city issues it’s less Good vs. Evil and more We Have Infinite Possible Opportunities and a Limited Budget, Where Do We Spend It and Where Do We Make Compromises. How many noxious weeds are tolerable in park fields? How much pesticide use? “We’ll just cut the useless administrative positions to pay for all the stuff we want” is another thing that looks different from the inside. Quoting Scott Vreeland again:

At the convention debate I asked, “How are you going to pay for that?” Russ Rooster Henry said his plan to fully fund neighborhood parks, would be paid for by eliminating the park planning department. BTW, That is a really bad idea. (Without planning there would have been no 20 year plan to fix our neighborhood parks or playgrounds or wading pools)

There’s a value in institutional memory. There’s a value in knowing what solutions got tried in the past, and how they failed. There’s also a value in a fresh perspective. I’ve endorsed a lot of the new, fresh-perspective people even though people I’ve liked and respected in the past (Scott Vreeland, John Erwin, Annie Young) endorsed the other person in that race because they want the person they think will provide stability.

But the difference between “providing stability” and “preserving the status quo” is largely a difference in perspective.

We’ll see, I guess?

There are areas where I solidly sympathize with the board: Vreeland is pretty outraged that he got called out for pointing out (ACCURATELY) that Hashim Yonis was convicted of a crime. (Yonis insists he was framed by Vreeland and I just. don’t. buy it. I’m sorry. That story does not add up. Do I believe that Minneapolis politicians would engage in dirty tricks? Sure. Do I believe that a couple of Park Board Commissioners would go so far as to frame a candidate in a ten-person race, someone who was a long-shot to win anyway, when one of the DFL-endorsed candidates hadn’t even gone to the effort of setting up a website that year? I mean, putting together a website is really freaking easy and Tom Nordyke had the DFL endorsement so it really seems like if they wanted to conspire to keep Yonis out of a Park Board seat, volunteering to set up a website for Tom Nordyke would have been a whole lot less work than an elaborate multi-person frame job.)


But the fact that Yonis was involved in the protests regarding equity does not invalidate the other protesters’ complaints. One of the candidates for District 5 commissioner notes that when he started working for the Park Board, 80% of the people working in the “good” jobs — full time, with benefits — were white. Years later, it’s 75%. White people make up about 64% of the Minneapolis population — and apparently that’s reflected more accurately in the makeup of people in the part-time, low-paid jobs that don’t offer benefits. This stuff doesn’t happen randomly. It doesn’t mean that hiring managers are setting out to discriminate, but at some point, when you’re sure you’re just hiring the best applicant and yet you’re hiring 75% white people you need to take a look at yourself and your criteria and ask whether you’re hiring people who make you feel comfortable, or if you’ve got a bunch of gatekeeping criteria that are keeping out high-quality candidates. One of the suggestions that’s been made in this cycle is that park management jobs should not be reserved for those with a four-year degree; that years of experience working in the parks should count for more. A four-year degree requirement with no “or equivalent experience” is a really good way of perpetuating systemic inequities.

Anyway. I guess my point here is that I sympathize with Scott’s frustration but I also sympathize with those who concluded that it was time to give a new set of people the opportunity to make the changes they wanted to see. If they’re catastrophic failures, they’ll have angry crowds at their own meetings soon enough. If they’re not, they’ll make their own incremental progress which will eventually be deemed insufficient and they’ll all be out on their ear, because that is the political CIRCLE OF LIFE.



Minneapolis Park Board, District 3

This seat has been held by Scott Vreeland since 2006. He decided not to run again for the District 3 seat, apparently saying that he thought a person of color should have a chance at it. He ran for an at-large seat instead, but didn’t get the endorsement and dropped out.

There is no DFL endorsement for this seat; AK Hassan and Abdi Gurhan Mohamed deadlocked at the convention, 51/49.

On the ballot:

AK Hassan (DFL)
Abdi Gurhan Mohamed (DFL)
Charles Exner (Green-endorsed)

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Minneapolis Park Board, District 2

District 2 is the North Minneapolis park board district. It’s been represented by Jon Olson since 2002 (so, long before I took up election blogging.) He opted not to run this year.

This race has been a hard one to research: the incumbent’s name is Jon Olson (do you have any idea how many Jon Olsons there are in Minnesota?), one challenger is named Kale Severson which gets a ton of false hits on articles about the vegetable, and the other challenger is named Mike Tate but also uses the nickname “Talley” so I have both the “common names” problem and the “person uses an alternate name part of the time” problem. (I think this article is about him? But it calls him Mat Talley throughout, so I’m not sure? Anyway.)

On the ballot:

Mike Talley Tate
Kale Severson

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Minneapolis Park Board, District 1

When I hear about a local election that’s a DFLer vs. a Green, there are certain assumptions I make. Like, I tend to expect that the Green will be to the left of the Democrat, at least on environmental issues. I don’t, as a general rule, expect the Green to be the defender of the status quo. If these are assumptions you, too, tend to bring to elections, and you live in District 1, boy do I ever have a surprise for you this year!

On the ballot:

Chris Meyer
Mohamed Issa Barre
Billy Menz

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Minneapolis Park Board At-Large Candidates

There are nine candidates; you get to vote for three, ranked, and your vote is allocated in this very complicated way that FairVote MN can explain to you. The important thing to know is that even though we have three slots and three candidates, ranking matters, and you should definitely put your favorites in your order of favorite-ness.

On the ballot:

Bob Sullentrop
Jonathan Honerbrink
Russ Henry
Mike Derus
Latrisha Vetaw
Meg Forney
Charlie Casserly
Londel French
Devin Hogan

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Minneapolis Park Board At-Large and the apparent #1 Issue: the Hiawatha Golf Course

Whoo, this race. There are nine people running for three at-large seats. I had insomnia the other night and decided that a good way to get to sleep faster would be to get out of bed, pull up the list of candidates and their websites from the Secretary of State site, and take a look at everyone’s web page to see if maybe half of them were like that guy running for School Board in St. Paul with the web site saying “you should hire me as your lawyer!” with zero information about his stances on anything (and really no reason to hire him as a lawyer).

What I discovered is that the key issue in this year’s race appears to be the Hiawatha Golf Course. And that’s a really tough issue for me to grapple with, because I really, truly, do not give even 1/10th of a shit about golf. Which doesn’t mean I hate golf courses: that would require an opinion of golf, and I really don’t have one. Literally the only things I’ve done on golf courses were not golf: I have cross-country skied on the Highland Golf Course. In Madison, Wisconsin, when I was a teenager, I once went to the Glenway Golf Course at 1 a.m. and ran through the sprinklers with a bunch of other teenagers. (“Sounds fun. Don’t get arrested,” my father said when I called to tell him where I was going when we finished closing the frozen custard stand where I worked.) I’m not sure I even have any friends these days who play golf. But it’s not as if I have anything in particular against golf. There are lots of things the parks provide facilities for that I don’t use. I feel like the public compact we all make with parks is that we all get some of the stuff we want, and that means when we go to the park, we’ll see plenty of stuff we have no interest in mixed in with the stuff we came for. Part of what I love about the Minneapolis parks system is that it’s very oriented toward use, and I’m pretty sure that goes all the way back to Theodore Wirth, who broke with earlier park designers who were building parks to be strolled through and admired, not played in.

But if, say, there’s suddenly an explosion of interest in polo, and so they build two polo fields, and then people lose interest in polo and those fields are sitting there empty, or it turns out the fields have to be extensively rebuilt every two years because of wear-and-tear from horse hoofs, I also think it’s entirely reasonable to consider re-purposing those fields. Yeah, you lose your investment, but that’s also true every time the library discards a copy of Microsoft Windows 2000 For Dummies or puts one of the 36,000 copies of Twilight it bought back in the day in the pile for the Friends sale. Not all investments have to be permanent.

But okay. Getting back to the actual issue at hand: the Hiawatha Golf Course is slated to be closed down. From what I can understand, it flooded really badly in 2014, and when staff went to figure out why it flooded so badly, they realized that there are some really significant water problems at the course — water from Lake Hiawatha seeps out of the lake and into the golf course, and to keep the golf course from being constantly flooded, the city has been pumping it back into the lake. This is a problem because they have a permit from the DNR to pump 36 million gallons per year  and they’ve been pumping about 240 million gallons, and that’s a lot more than they’re supposed to be pumping. Also, any time the golf course floods like it did in 2014, the city has to spend a pile of money to fix it up for use again.

The “we have to pump lots of water into the lake” is presented as an obvious problem in basically all the articles about it and no one explains why this is a problem.

Star Tribune“They are pumping an awful amount of water, and they have been doing it for decades,” said Joe Richter, DNR groundwater appropriations hydrologist. “I think it’s time for them to assess what’s happening with the parcel and to make plans into the future to use it in a way that’s reasonable.”

City PagesThe Hiawatha Golf Course can stay in business by continuing to pump at least 242 million gallons of groundwater annually into Lake Hiawatha, even though the Park Board’s permit allots for only 36.5 million gallons per year. And it’s only a matter of time before it incurs the wrath of the DNR, the agency with the power to yank said permit.

Southwest JournalCommissioners considered an alternative scenario that would continue the pumping of approximately 242 million gallons of water to keep the course open. At one point, Park Board-owned facilities were pumping out approximately 260 million gallons of water annually, much more than was permitted. The Department of Natural Resources regulates groundwater pumping and prefers the reduction of pumping as a more viable long-term water management option.

Why is it not viable to just keep pumping? Is there a reason beyond, “that’s a lot of water,” or “we’d have to get the DNR’s permission?”

The park has a bunch of documents online.

Here is a FAQ from June. It has a nice, polished layout and answers the questions that a lot of people ask: could we fix the water problems by dredging the creek (no; it’s super complicated and wouldn’t make enough of a difference) or by dredging the lake (no; we could make the lake deeper, but the water level would be the same. This is really nonintuitive to people because they picture the lake as basically being a bowl, and if you make the bowl a deeper bowl, it can hold more water. Apparently lakes are not bowls, so simply making the lake deeper doesn’t solve anything; if you want to reduce the amount of water in the lake, you’d need to solve the problem upstream and that’s even more complicated.)

Here is an assessment of the pumping from July. It give a reason why pumping is bad: “From a long-term ecological perspective, a reduction of pumping is important to the MPRB. The golf course was constructed on a former wetland with organic (peat) soils that have historically settled at locations throughout the golf course. Parts of the golf course will continue to settle, and while the rate is likely less than when the golf course was originally constructed, the continued settlement of the land within the golf course area will result in the need for increased pumping into the future, especially if maintaining the area as a golf course. Continuing to pump at the current volumes presents impacts related to soil subsidence (or settling). By pumping less, the area of soil subsidence can be greatly reduced by maintaining higher groundwater levels throughout the golf course area, and the uses in the park and—ultimately the site design—can better accommodate future settlement.” In other words — I think — pumping is bad, because the golf course is sinking and although it will continue to sink whether or not we pump, it’ll sink more when we pump, requiring more pumping. That said, they’ve been pumping it since the 1930s? I think?

Here’s a table of questions with answers — questions people asked at a public meeting in July, along with short-form answers. This is actually one of the more informative documents if you can wade through some of the weirder questions. Lots of people have asked why we can’t just dump fill in the golf course to raise it; essentially, this is a bad idea because the golf course’s occasional job as emergency stormwater runoff storage location (in a really wet year, when there is A LOT of stormwater) is important, and if you make the golf course higher so it can’t store that stormwater, it will find other places to go, like people’s basements.

Finally, here’s a FAQ from early October.

In August, the Park Board voted 6-3 to reduce pumping to the minimal amount that’s required to keep water out of area basements, and let the golf course go. In early October, they voted to delay this for five years, allowing a longer discussion period of what should happen with the land (this also would make it pretty straightforward for a future Park Board to reverse the decision to get rid of the golf course.)

This is why this is such a thoroughly contentious issue in the race, which is why I felt like I needed to come up with an opinion of the issue even though see above about just how little I care about golf.

Some thoughts on this:

  1. I do not blame the golfers at all for looking at the Park Board’s statements and saying, “How about you start by seeing if the DNR will just let us continue pumping?” I mean, there really does not seem to be a compelling reason that this has to change. They discovered they were pumping more than their permit allowed, and they’d need a different permit from the DNR. Okay? So apply for that permit? The DNR is being treated like it’s the Wizard of Oz here, rather than like a regulatory agency.
  2. The most compelling reason to get rid of the golf course that I see is that it costs a lot of money to rebuild it every time it floods, and the regular flooding is absolutely inevitable. But that’s going to be true of literally anything else they do with the land, other than turning it into a wetland, because its back-up job is Getting Flooded. (This will apparently slowly get worse with the golf course, because it’s sinking. But it’s sinking like 1/4 inch per year. Couldn’t they just add some fill when they have to rebuild post-flooding? I feel like in one of those documents from the Park Board, they might have responded to this by saying that the extra fill would be heavier which would make it sink faster, but … yeah, I mean, 1/4 inch per year just doesn’t seem like so much that normal uses of the land are not viable.)
  3. How many people love golf and use this golf course? Should that be a priority for the city? I have no clear sense of this.
  4. How much pesticides do they use on that golf course? I don’t know, but Annie Young, who has spent her whole career arguing against pesticides, voted against closing the golf course.
  5. I am definitely against any plan that would put more water in people’s basements.
  6. Water management is really complicated, and there’s no one entity in charge of it. I find that kind of surprising, and I wonder how many other issues are happening at a less-public level because no one’s exactly in charge of figuring out Where the Water Goes and changes tend to be made in a piecemeal way. (There’s a document with an explanation of some of the upstream changes that may have increased water problems at Hiawatha over the years, but it doesn’t sound like they actually know which change(s) caused it, and what could be done, and what the ramifications would be of reversing some of the changes. And that seems really odd, because one thing that is not complicated is what water does.

Fundamentally, I think what I want to see in Park Board Commissioners is openness to possibilities here. Should it be a golf course? Maybe not? But in that case, give us a legitimate argument for getting rid of the golf course instead of just passing the buck to the DNR and trying to convince everyone that pumping out the water (as they have done for decades. Like the permit they were ignoring was actually issued in 1993!) is suddenly such a problem that we definitely need to dial it back as much as we possibly can immediately, even though it doesn’t affect water quality in Lake Hiawatha (because it literally is the water from Lake Hiawatha that’s just being put back in). Should it stay a golf course? Maybe? But I definitely want to see an interest in running the parks beyond the golf courses. (If your website says “SAVE THE GOLF COURSE! also picnics are cool,” you are not likely to be my pick.)

EDITED TO ADD: Fred Beukema, a Civil Engineer who called up a friend who’s an environmental scientist with background in water resource science, wrote an essay explaining the issues with the golf course that is very worth reading. Currently available here. I really appreciate the fact that he translated technical language, like he explained “10 foot x 11 foot wastewater interceptor” could also be referred to as a “poop sewer main.” If you are interested in sorting out the issues regarding the golf course, Fred’s analysis is a must-read.

Coming next: some analysis of the actual candidates.