Finally. We managed to bring together the major elements of the September 7, 2016 Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board meeting into something that almost resembles a coherent set of essential narratives. When I took on this project, I was not aware of the parallel story of the Standards and Procedures Committee and the effort to strengthen the hand of the President in response to impassioned vocal opposition. I had heard about the opposition to the out-sourcing of union jobs and ceding control of public space to private concerns. I knew the context of racial discrimination at the Board with regard to hiring, firing, and promotion. The rule making sums it up. Presented in their own words it lays bare the fallacies that underpin the arguments for enhanced Rules of Decorum.
The new Rules did not come about by accident. They were carefully designed by high-priced lawyers hired by their partner at the MPRB. Much like the public testimony and Loppet Donation Agreement vote earlier that evening, the Committee meeting was a culmination of on-going efforts. Park Board Legal Counsel, Brian Rice, had hired his law partner, Ann Walther, to do research and sculpt the wording of the New Rules. No real surprise the in depth study showed that, yes Brian, the First Amendment still applies to your Park Board. Walther plotted a way through the legal nightmare of reiterating the right of people to speak to their elected officials and appointed administrators. The trick was to declare the crack down “viewpoint neutral” and so minimize the chance of running awry of legal precedent.
But for Brad Bourn, Commissioner for District 6, the entire discussion would have lacked any critical consideration of whether the general assumption that those responsible for creating the “best park system in America” could not possibly act in anything other than a “viewpoint neutral” manner. Anyone daring to question that assertion has to go through Liz Wielinski, Commissioner District 1. Try not to make her uncomfortable along the way. Acting Committee Chair Meg Forney, Commissioner at Large, earnestly believed that the Board has important work to get done. In fact, she was doing it on camera. This is the MPRB business the President was so insistent they make time to complete that she called the Parks Police and had people arrested earlier that evening. These were the Rules she had requested; the legally blessed hair-trigger she so wanted to hold.
Commissioner Wielinsky insisted that her previous efforts at influencing the MPRB from outside be replicated by every disaffected person that comes before the Board. Anything more radical than her sign-wielding defense of a pool, she considered grounds for arrest. Especially if you get in the way of park business, like weaponizing the Rules of Decorum as quickly as possible. Shockingly, I found a point of agreement with Wielinski, the MPRB deserves to be treated like a “government body”. Non-violent civil disobedience, including “terrible chanting” and wanton waving of signs, has a long history as a Constitutionally protected way to treat such a “government body”. Especially because the MPRB that has, to date, continued to fail to address the issues of racial disparities and discrimination by the Board and administrators. These very issues had just dethroned President Wielinski. Listen to Legal Counsel Rice suggest that, at the current time, some people have lost the “instinctual” sense of “common courtesy”. While I’m not certain that every the Commissioner got the hint, I did. Did you? Some were distracted and distraught, weighed by fear and stoked to outrage by Rice, Tabb, and Wielinski. A couple saw through the sham and tried to steer the conversation away from conflict, or at least slow it down.
A more reasonable Legal Counsel, or perhaps one less tied to law enforcement pressure groups, might suggest that a more judicious use of the Board’s time, borrowed as it was from those marched off in cuffs and denied their right to speak, would be to directly address the array of racial inequities cited by the few remaining voices the Board allowed to take the microphone. A lawyer seriously engaged in trying to listen to those disaffected by the MPRB policies and projects would make time to address those issues in terms of Standards and Procedures. As the Commissioners line up to use the award-winning Minneapolis Parks System as a shield to deflect uncomfortable thoughts and inconvenient conclusions, a competent legal counsel might suggest they instead marshal the strength of our great Parks System to engage their critics directly on these most critical issues. Most definitely, a less authoritarian counsel would not see the First Amendment as a problem and conversely would encourage deescalation through positive response to public outcry. But such is not the way of Rasputin. Instead, his Board spends precious Board business time and plenty of money figuring out how to protect themselves the next time they have people arrested for speaking out. The Parks workers and the people of Minneapolis deserve better than Brian Rice and his expensive, militaristic approach to quashing the public disagreement with MPRB policies and projects.
Stay tuned. Part 2 on Wednesday.