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

Park board members who supported encampments irked and angered residents. Many voters told candidates leading up to last fall’s election that housing is not the board’s responsibility.

Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board building
Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board building
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Compared to the last Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the first six months of the present parks commission have been relatively collaborative. 

Seven newcomers were elected last fall to the nine-member board. And with them, so far, has come a commitment to placing fundamentals like park maintenance and event organization as the commission’s chief priority. Less sniping — and less outside-of-the-box governance — will lead to better park maintenance and happier Minneapolis residents, say many park commissioners. 

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“When you take a giant sidestep away from the mission, which, I think, is kind of what the last board did in some ways, you’re screwing with something that can exist to do good,” said District 6 Commissioner Cathy Abene.

Cathy Abene
Cathy Abene
Since the beginning of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in 2020, after two years of getting tangled in issues of park encampments and housing, or policing, said At-Large Commissioner Tom Olsen, many residents, when looking to the park board, seemed to have one desire. 

“Folks are kinda like, ‘I just want a park,’” Olsen said. 

Another goal for this new board, regardless of what their policy initiatives might be, is to imbue their work together with respect. So far, six months into their four-year term, it’s been relatively smooth sailing. 

Park Board President Meg Forney, one of the two incumbents on the board, said the present board is uniquely open to simply listen to one another. 

Tom Olsen
Tom Olsen
“Instead of coming in with a set narrative, ‘I’m going to sabotage this,’ or, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” said Forney. “There’s none of that attitude.”

“No one is maligning the motives of a fellow commissioner, no one is cynical, at this point,” said Olsen. “I’m hoping we keep that for the next three-and-half years.”

“I think what is different is that we have a tremendous amount of respect for each other’s opinions and it’s not a power struggle about trying to compete for a certain viewpoint,” said District 4 Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer. “We respect each other’s ideological framework but move past ideology to practical park governance.”

Concentrating on basic park function — and less on racing to be the most ostensibly progressive and putting others down for not keeping up — will make for better parks and happier residents, say commissioners. 

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Housing and the park board don’t mix 

Park board members who supported park encampments irked and angered residents. Many voters told the candidates leading up to last fall’s election that housing is not the park board’s responsibility.

Meg Forney
Meg Forney
One of those candidates, who is now a board member, is District 2 Commissioner Becka Thompson, who was elected on a platform of disallowing people from sleeping in parks. “That, for me, is completely a nonstarter,” said Thompson, adding that addressing how people become unhoused in a city park or helping them gain housing stability is outside of the park board’s purview. 

But Thompson said she understands how decisions to permit people to sleep in parks could come to pass in 2020, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder during the first summer of the pandemic. 

“We were all, the entire city, in a traumatized place,” Thompson said. 

Becka Thompson
Becka Thompson
“In defense of the last board, those really were unprecedented times,” Olsen said. 

As more unhoused people congregated in parks, particularly Powderhorn in 2020, and more housed people began losing work and housing stability, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order in May 2020 preventing the eviction of Minnesota residents, as well as the clearing of homeless encampments in parks. 

The decision to remove people sleeping in parks was taken out of the park board’s hands. 

“That’s the only reason we had encampments,” Forney said. 

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Later in 2020, it was determined that the park board did have the authority to sweep or otherwise manage park encampments. By then, said Forney, it was too late — encampments had ballooned and spread to other parks. 

In those frenzied days, said Thompson, who was just a resident at the time, most of the city was yearning for any leader to say “everything is going to be OK.”

One seemingly progressive way of assuaging concern around the sight of growing homeless encampments — from the unsettling notion that multitudes of people were rapidly losing housing to the fear of safety issues that have the potential to arise in park encampments — was for a park board member to stand up in a park and announce their support for allowing the unhoused to sleep overnight in parks, Thompson said.  

The actual practice of letting people sleep in parks, though, proved to be complicated. Reports of violence and drug use in camps — and spilling outside camps — spurred demands from those living nearby for the sweeping of the Powderhorn encampment and others. Before the end of summer 2020, the park board began clearing certain sites. 

On the campaign trail last year, commissioners say they heard, loud and clear, from residents who were fed up with commissioners supporting unhoused people sleeping in parks. 

Abene said she noticed that other candidates who supported the continued use of parkland as a refuge for the unhoused quickly changed their tune. 

“There is a reason that the board that got elected was elected,” Abene said. 

The other big issue for voters last fall was the park board’s relationship with Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and state troopers after the decisions, both made in 2020, to stop using MPD for park events and to keep state troopers off park property. 

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Thumbing a nose at law enforcement also enraged voters 

The decision to block state troopers from using park facilities to use the bathroom was a major sticking point, said Abene. 

“That was probably the worst thing that the last board did,” Abene said. “It made people crazy. People asked me about it [on the campaign trail] all the time. That was massively unpopular.” 

Though the majority of park board members said they are against allowing park encampments seen in the city in 2020, there is less consensus around issues of policing. 

In April, the new park board undid the last board’s ban on using MPD officers for park events. But that vote was not consensus, passing by a 5-3-1 margin. Individual commissioners are still hashing out their stance on how much the park board will rely on MPD and in what ways, as well as how they want to oversee park police. 

Elizabeth Shaffer
Elizabeth Shaffer
Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer said she believes changes to law enforcement practice can be made to make residents safer and feel more secure. But she finds “grandstanding from the ultra-left and the ultra-right” unhelpful and believes no progress will be made until people are willing to talk with one another in good faith. 

Forney said there is a culture of racism that permeates the nation and its police forces. But having the park board turn its back on traditional policing entirely might look good on Twitter but is functionally untenable when carrying out park functions like ensuring the safety of a large event.

“It’s a narrative that is improper, but it makes for a nice sound bite for the [last park board commissioners] before to say ‘We have nothing to do with MPD,’” said Forney, adding that not only is that statement inaccurate — the park board never entirely severed itself from MPD, just banned use of officers for park events — but is also impractical. 

Olsen said he wrestles with rethinking how safety enforcement is executed, but he said that he is not interested in trying new or radical changes without thoroughly researching each alternative. 

A more conservative, more agreeable park board 

“On a base political spectrum level, this board is perhaps more towards the middle of the dial, more toward the right — not right like Republican but [conservative] like [being more cautious],” Olsen said. “People want the basics, the bread and butter. I’m not going to tweak something until I get a good idea of how it works.”

The new park board is not in lockstep. The ongoing debate over the exact redesign of the Hiawatha Golf Course is one large example, Olsen said. 

“We may not be in lockstep [on every issue] but we are in lockstep in the sense that we all have a common goal of making sure that the parks run as well as possible,” Olsen said. 

Just six months in, Olsen points out, the board has yet to be challenged in the way the previous board was. Also, the present board has yet to face a string of contentious votes on encampments or policing that would give commissioners the opportunity to move further away from each other in opinion. 

“We’re in a new place and it is because of these individuals,” said Forney of the new park board. “Is it because we don’t have encampments in the park, that critical issue, or we don’t have the murder of Gorge Floyd and therefore a challenge of policing in general? Oh, I’m sure. But, ya know, we are gonna have a crisis. There is no doubt about it. You can’t avoid it.”