The new Minneapolis park board seems to be getting along — and getting back to basics

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The first six months of this commission’s existence have been more collaborative than the previous Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.


The nine-member board was reconstituted last fall with seven new members. They have all pledged to make the fundamentals of event organization and park maintenance their top priority. Many park commissioners believe that less sniping and more outside-of the-box governance will result in better park maintenance and happier residents of Minneapolis.


“When we take a huge sidestep away form the mission, which I think is kind of what was done in some ways by the last board, we’re screwing something that can exist and do good,” stated District 6 Commissioner Cathy ABENE.

Cathy Abene


After two years of being entangled in issues regarding park encampments, housing or policing, Tom Olsen, At-Large Commissioner, stated that many residents seemed to only have one desire since the start of the pandemic in 2020 and the murder of George Floyd.


span style=”font weight: 400 Folks were kinda like, ” Olsen said.


This new board has another goal, no matter what policy initiatives they might have, to show respect for each other’s work. It’s been relatively easy sailing so far, six months into their four year term.


Meg Forney (Park Board President), one of two incumbents, stated that the current board is open to listening to each other.

Tom Olsen


Forney stated, “Instead of coming into with a set narrative,” or, “I’m going to destroy this” or, “It’s mine way or the highway.” “There is no such attitude.”


Olsen stated that no one is trying to malign the motives of another commissioner. “I hope we can keep that for the next three and a half years .”


“We respect each other’s ideologies but move beyond ideology to practical park governance,” stated Elizabeth Shaffer, District 4 Commissioner. “We respect each others’ ideologies but we move beyond ideology to practical park governance span>


Commissioners say that focusing on the basic functions of parks will result in happier residents and better parks.

Housing is not mixed with the park board


Residents were angry and annoyed by park board members who supported the park encampments. Many voters stated to the candidates in the run-up to last fall’s election that housing was not the responsibility of the park board.

Meg Forney


Becka Thompson, District 2 Commissioner, was one of the candidates who became a member of the board. She was elected on a platform that prohibited people from sleeping in parks. Thompson stated that “that, for me is completely nonstarter.” She added that the park board is not responsible for helping people get housing stability or addressing how they become homeless in city parks.


Thompson stated that she understood how the decision to allow people to sleep in parks in 2020 could be made in the immediate aftermath George Floyd’s death in the first summer of pandemic.


Thompson stated that span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” We were all in a traumatized city.”

Becka Thompson


Olsen stated, “In defense of last board,” that those were truly unprecedented times.


Governor. In May 2020, Tim Walz issued an executive directive prohibiting the evictions of Minnesotans and the clearing out homeless encampments within parks.


The park board was not able to make the decision to take people out of parks.


span style=”font weight: 400 That’s all we had for encampments,” Forney stated.


In 2020, it was confirmed that the park board had the authority to sweep and manage park encampments. Forney said that it was too late. Encampments had exploded and spread to other parks.


Most of the city longed for a leader to tell them that everything is going to be okay in those chaotic days. Thompson was a new resident at the time.


Thompson stated that a park board member could stand in a park to announce their support for the overnight accommodation of the homeless in parks. This would help to alleviate concern about the growing number of homeless encampments.


However, the actual practice of letting people sleep outside in parks proved difficult. Residents living near the Powderhorn camp demanded that the site be swept. There were reports of violence and drug use, as well as spilling out of camps. The park board started clearing some sites before the summer 2020.


Commissioners said they heard residents complain about commissioners’ support for unhoused people sleeping in park benches on the campaign trail last summer.


Abene stated that she observed that other candidates who had supported parkland’s continued use as a refuge for the homeless quickly changed their minds.


span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” There is a reason the board that was elected was elected,” Abene stated.


Another major issue that voters had to address last fall was how the park board reacted to the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), and state troopers following the 2020 decisions to discontinue using MPD for parks events and keep state troopers away from park property.


Showing anger at law enforcement was another way to anger voters


Abene stated that the major sticking point was the decision to prevent state troopers from using parks facilities for their bathroom use.


span style=”font weight: 400 That was probably the worst thing the board did,” Abene stated. It drove people insane. It was something that people asked me all the time on the campaign trail. This was hugely unpopular.”


While the majority of park board members stated they were against park encampments in 2020, there is less agreement around issues related to policing.


The new park board overturned the ban on MPD officers being used for events in parks by the previous board in April. The vote passed by 5-3-1, but it was not unanimous. Each commissioner is still deciding how much and how often the park board will depend on MPD, and how they want to supervise park police.

Elizabeth Shaffer


Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer stated that she believes law enforcement practices can be improved to make residents feel safer and more secure. She finds the “grandstanding of the ultra-left or the ultra-right” ineffective and believes that no progress can be made until people are open to talking with each other in good faith.


Forney stated that there is a culture based on racism in the country and its police force. Although it might seem appealing on Twitter, having the park board abandon traditional policing completely may prove to be problematic when it comes to performing park functions such as ensuring safety at large events.


span style=”font weight: 400 It’s an improper narrative but it makes for some nice sound bites for the [last Park Board commissioners] before saying ‘We have no deal with MPD’,” said Forney. He also stated that the statement is inaccurate because the park board has not completely separated itself from MPD. It just prohibited the use of officers at park events.


Olsen stated that he struggles with how safety enforcement should be rethought, but that he doesn’t want to try radical or new changes without fully researching all options.


A more moderate, agreeable park board


span style=”font weight: 400 On a basic political spectrum level, this board may be more towards the center of the dial than the right — not right-leaning like a Republican, but conservative like being more cautious,” Olsen stated. “People want the basics. They want bread and butter. I won’t make any changes to something until I have a better understanding span>


The new park board is not in lockstep. Olsen stated that the ongoing debate about the redesign of Hiawatha Golf Course was a major example.


span style=”font weight: 400 We may not agree on every issue, but we do agree that our common goal is to ensure that parks run smoothly,” Olsen stated.


Olsen notes that the board has not been challenged in the same way as the old board six months ago. The present board has not faced a series of contentious votes regarding encampments and policing, which would allow commissioners to move closer to one another in opinion.


span style=”font weight: 400 We’re in an entirely new place because of these people,” stated Forney, the new park board member. Is it that we don’t have encampments within the park, which is a critical issue? Or are we not facing the murder of Gorge Floyd, which would pose a problem for policing in general?” Oh, I’m sure. But we will have a crisis, you know. It is certain. You can’t avoid it.”

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