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Looking for ‘a fresh start,’ Minneapolis parks board interviews two superintendent finalists

A contentious 2017 election has continued to shape how the board works — or doesn’t.

Seve Ghose said to the board, referring to the system’s widespread impact across the city: “We need to find our way.”
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

Tuesday evening marked a milestone in the nationwide search for the next superintendent of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, which interviewed two finalists during a special meeting of the board.

Those finalists are Seve Ghose, the Metro Parks and Recreation Department director in Louisville, Kentucky, and Alfred Bangoura, who is superintendent of recreation in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which covers Charlotte. (A third candidate in the running recently dropped out.)

The new hire will play a critical role in leading the board, which oversees more than 6,800 acres of public space across the city, as well as 1,740 temporary and full-time employees, and the move follows an unusually divisive 2017 election that preceded the resignation of former superintendent Jayne Miller, who had lead the agency for seven years.

Though the new leader is undecided, the position’s duties are not. Whoever takes the leadership gig will have a say on how to spend $120 million while continuing the board’s promise to improve opportunities for children and teens. The superintendent will also oversee the board’s request for state funding at the Capitol next legislative session, as well as consider policies for park police following a controversial 911 response at Minnehaha Park this summer.

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Election fallout lingers

The decision comes at a strange time for the board.

Board members have had issues getting along with each other (and with city of Minneapolis officials) for years, but a 2017 election drew new attention to the discord. In the months leading up to the voting, racial-justice activists criticized the board and the former superintendent, Miller, for their “racial-equity plan,” saying it did not go far enough to address unfair treatment of people of color within the system, among other issues.

That November, voters elected six new board members, many of whom were endorsed by the progressive political group Our Revolution MN. Miller stepped down in February, shortly after the new board members took office, to take the job of president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Board member Latrisha Vetaw, who is among the six new faces, said the way people campaigned last year, and whom they befriended then, continues to shape how the board works. She said she teamed up with incumbent Meg Forney and newcomer Steffanie Musich while seeking people’s vote, and now they stick together on most debates. A few weeks ago, for example, the trio took the same side in a major showdown over how the board should form a committee to research alternatives to pesticides. They wanted each board member to appoint someone to the group, but at least one other member wanted the board’s president to pick the new committee’s members, Vetaw recalled.

“That got really bad,” she said. “It was so ugly.”

Alfred Bangoura
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Alfred Bangoura: “I think about how we can be better, how we can continue to grow.”
Questions over the board’s role in fixing racial inequities linger, too. At a meeting in September, board members discussed a proposal to ask the Legislature to consider tighter penalties for people who maliciously call 911, which became an issue after someone called police alleging four Somali-American teens had weapons in Minnehaha Park in July. The teens were actually unarmed.

The entire board deemed the request necessary. But Forney and Musich disagreed with other members’ rush to approve the item immediately, which required the board to temporarily suspend its scheduling rules. Forney and Musich felt doing so would break their commitment to remain transparent, giving the public notice of their plans ahead of time. They felt waiting a week and following the set schedule would accomplish that.

But other board members, including Londel French whom Our Revolution MN supported in last year’s election tied the board’s urgency on the issue to social reform. He said the  board cannot delay its stance on such measures that deal with injustices against people of color.

“We keep doing this, suspending things as a board and changing things,” Musich said at the meeting.When we do that, it’s not fair to people who are trying to pay attention to what we’re doing.”

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“You’re talking from a position of privilege,” French said in his response. Other members sighed. Forney buried her face.

That type of scene has become common at board meetings, though not everyone thinks that’s such a bad thing. The debates show the board’s willingness to tackle tough issues and offer different perspectives, said Board Member Jono Cowgill, who was also elected last year. Disagreements are part of the job, he said, and the board’s newcomers himself included are understanding that more with time.

“I don’t take that [disagreements] to be an indication that the board is somehow not functional or that it is struggling to work well together. I see it as an indication that actually we’re able to have difficult conversations,” he said. “Whatever growing pains there have been, I think, overall I’m seeing that type of perspective grow.”

Beyond finding their next boss and debating pesticides, board members are busy now finalizing their budget for next year. They’re proposing a tax increase of up to $3.5 million — or an increase of the tax levy by 5.7 percent — to generate new money for youth programs. The Board of Estimate and Taxation approved that idea, and the board will finalize the system’s spending next month.

The parks board also debated recently if, or to what extent, their jobs should pay more; an advisory panel decided the roughly $12,500 annual salary for the part-time gig is enough.

Finding someone ‘to give us a fresh start’

Several board members said the new superintendent will play a critical role in the board’s dynamic. Facing the board Tuesday, the two candidates Ghose, of Kentucky, and Bangoura, of North Carolina fielded the board’s questions, covering topics as broad as climate change and as specific as youth swimming lessons.

“We need to find our way,” Ghose said to the board, referring to the system’s widespread impact across the city.

“I think about how we can be better, how we can continue to grow,” Bangoura said.

Both finalists claim ties to Minneapolis. Ghose said he considered the city an exciting place to visit when he attended Iowa State University. “I learned the value people place on recreation,” he said.

Right now, he leads the Louisville park system and has served in park leadership roles in Oregon and Iowa. In his interview, he emphasized the universality of parks and recreation services — how they set the tone of a city — and how his connections nationwide could put Minneapolis in touch with leaders elsewhere.

Bangoura, meanwhile, lived 36 years in Minneapolis and Coon Rapids before moving south a few years ago. He highlighted his experience in the Midwest, including his previous stint with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation system, where he served in various leadership roles, including Recreation Centers and Programs Director. He also talked about his work in the region’s private sector, as a Target executive and hotel manager.

“My heart has always been here,” he said. “I will care about this board. I deeply care about this organization.”

No public discussion among board members followed the candidate’s interviews, though finalists and the elected officials mingled with audience members in a lobby space afterward.

The board had hired a local recruiting firm, called kpCompanies, earlier this year to help with the search, so board members will work with that firm to set a timeline for making their selection. They hope to announce their choice before the end of the year.

Many said they are looking for someone who shares their goals to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and expand kids’ access to youth recreation programs. Vetaw also emphasized the need for a superintendent who understands Minneapolis’ political landscape and social-justice issues all the while improving the board’s working dynamic.

“I’m hoping that this new person is actually going to give us a fresh start,” Vetaw said. “This is all new for us. We’re all learning. … It [the 2017 election] was a huge turnover. I think this first year is just, you know, growing pains a learning curve. And then next year, with the new superintendent, we’ll be ready.”