The first and likely only Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) candidate forum was held at MLK Park on June 1, 2017. Organized by Take Action MN, it was an informative, lively, and challenging interactive Town Hall with 4 issue-oriented discussion groups. Thanks to Chesney for helping with video.
I commend all 5 candidates that participated. It is not for the faint of heart to be the focus of public attention in the political realms when the people are activated, determined, and organized. I certainly have been doing my part to keep the fires beneath their feet and on their britches burning bright enough to allow us to see how the MPRB conducts business. At times it seems a conceit to the distant past to dwell so intently on September 7, 2016, but then the calendar reminds me that the anniversaries of the many long meetings I have been zipping through are upon us. It was a tremendous shot of democracy in action to see and hear so many people in the crowd at the Forum that I had just been watching as they testified before the MPRB throughout the summer and into the fall of 2016. The focus group format precluded any back and forth between individual candidates and kept the meeting from reeling off-balance toward the loudest and more controversial voices. Each group had a list of 5 questions revolving around the issue represented by groups around justice, equity, environment, and community building.
The incumbent Commissioners, Vreeland and Forney, were on defense from the moment they entered the room. I did not overhear a single instance of support for the current Board other than the standard acknowledgement of our award-winning parks. On the other hand, I heard many people questioning the MPRB – particularly with regard to selling out union workers at Wirth Park and the vicious display of legally-sanctioned white supremacy in the face of public resistance and insistent persistence concerning Superintendent Jayne Miller. Recall that Scott Vreeland was Vice President of the Board and was forced to resign for violating Board Decorum Rules by labeling a former employee a “convicted felon” as he testified at Open Time. Meg Forney has managed not to violate Board Rules as blatantly and has stayed on the sidelines when the issues of racial bias come forward. Both defend the Superintendent and refuse to consider the public and private claims that Miller’s administration made racially biased employment decisions, and orchestrated specific instances of retribution toward workers that dared to speak out. Neither supported Commissioners Bourn’s attempt to drop the charges against the 3 people arrested on September 7, 2016. If they felt a tinge of adversity in the room, they were not mistaken.
The MPRB has been the focus of sustained criticism of Superintendent Miller and the pattern of racially motivated employment practices and punitive retribution of specific employees for speaking up about the ways of the MPRB. Given that Vreeland was a central figure in the vote to approve the Donation Agreement with the Loppet Foundation at Wirth Park, it was no surprise he seemed worn down. More a ghost than a Commissioner, Vreelend moved like a specter of dysfunctions past. In his closing statement, Vreeland referred to the Board as a creature of the Legislature then went on to list all the pots of money he encouraged the MPRB to tend as carefully as gardens or trees. There is no clearer distinction than this vision to distance Vreeland from the progressives with whom he sought solidarity. Where the newcomers talk of public responsibility, civic improvement, and uplifting people using the public space and resources of the Parks, the self-described “old guy” praises the Old Guard and endorses the old ways.
Meg Forney serves as one of 3 At Large, or city wide Commissioners as she calls them, on the MPRB right now. Her prepared comments at the Forum were stale, off-topic, and divisive. Ideal fodder for DFL endorsement, but out of tune with the counter-establishment tendencies of the activists assembled by Take Action MN at the Minneapolis event. Notably, shallow was her play for gender solidarity that required tossing Commissioners Liz Weilinski and Steffanie Musich under the bus to make the threat of a woman-free Board seem vaguely plausible. Her cloying praise for the nearest candidates of color within sight was as shallow a play for for reflected righteousness as ever one is likely to see enacted with such aplomb. It is clear that Meg had few clues about the ramifications of Jayne Miller’s vindictive reign in the Parks or how to take action on the rhetoric she reread all over again. Minneapolis can no longer afford to waste Park Commissions on such hollow promises and the soft hucksterism of an Equity Matrix calculating the way toward justice. We deserve active Commissioners that will listen to what the people in and around the Parks maintained by the Board, grown by City, and sustained by the Community.
The 3 grass roots candidates, Londel French, Devin Hogan, and Russ Henry gave the overflow crowd a tutorial in how to effectively communicate complex, intersectional, and innovative ideas to a willing audience that was ready to engage on topics meaningful to them and important for communities they give voice and whom they represent. The non-incumbent Commissioner candidates played well together. With District MPRB Candidates AK Hassan, Brad Bourn, and Kale Severson attending, we had a quorum of things to come; a preview of MPRB meetings next year. I’m not lying. This is not fake news. The campaigns for Henry, French, and Hogan offer a scrying lens view of a more progressively active and engaged MPRB. They are natural allies that have arrayed themselves at 3 critical points that have been routinely and legally underappreciated by the current Board and its functionaries. Londel champions workers and union jobs, Devin talks Urban Park Rangers and civic benefit over bottomline economics, and Russ gets serious about doing away with pesticides, sequestering carbon, and hiring from the neighborhood to fully staff every Park.
I encourage every interested person to watch all 5 videos. I think the videos make it very clear which candidates will challenge the status quo paradigm of authority in Minneapolis government. With 3 At Large seats on the ballot and 5 candidates serious enough to make an appearance at the first – and perhaps only – public forum, it seems likely that Commissioner Bourn will get some help next year. Russ was correct to remind us that it is possible for us to elect the most progressive Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board in the long history of that storied institution. Rhetoric is no solution and we take Devin seriously when he wants to get on with “justice work” and move beyond “equity talk”. We know that Londel knows the Parks and has worked for youth throughout his career. He understands accountability and how to make it work for everyone.
I also encourage those connected to organizations with sufficient resources to consider hosting a Parks Commissioner Forum, including District Candidates, specifically focused on the questions of racial bias in the Parks administration raised by a large number of people moved to testify at Open Time and on other public platforms. Now is the time to ask the hard questions and apply the leverage of Ranked Choice Voting to move the discussion toward justice before we visit the polls. Why wait until after the election to start addressing issues that have been part of Parks culture since its inception? Enough is enough.