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.