Suit challenges Minneapolis City Council’s decision on proposed charter amendment

This much is clear: Most agree that Minneapolis parks are a crown jewel of the city.

But after that, it’s all getting murky.

Who’s in charge here? What happens next in Minneapolis parks? Ah, so many questions. For the moment, so few answers.

Shortly after the Minneapolis City Council on Friday rejected a proposed charter amendment that would have granted the city’s Park and Recreation Board autonomy, proponents of the measure filed suit in Hennepin County District Court, claiming the council’s action was beyond its authority. Judge Cara Lee Neville will have the job of sorting things out, beginning at a hearing Thursday.

Ducking for political cover, the council based its action on an opinion by the city attorney’s office that the proposed charter amendment was in violation of the Minnesota Constitution.

Supporters argue otherwise
But in their suit, supporters of the charter change claim it’s the City Council that’s in violation of the constitution, not to mention the will of thousands of city residents who signed petitions in support of having the charter amendment on the November ballot.

This is a battle of heavyweights. Current Mayor R.T. Rybak stands opposed to the amendment, which would give the Park and Recreation Board more autonomy than it’s ever had. But those supporting an “independent board” include former mayors Sharon Sayles Belton and Don Fraser.

More than 17,000 residents signed the petition, which was started in July after Park Board members and other park lovers grew concerned over a number of actions by the city that they felt threatened the independence of the board.

First up was the 2007 demise of the Minneapolis Library Board and the merger of the city’s libraries into the Hennepin County system. If a loss of the library system could happen, why not a loss of the park system?

That was followed by a couple of City Council maneuvers that caused some heavy sweating among those who are concerned about the future independence of the Park Board.

Governance change rejected
First, last spring some council members tossed around the idea of idea of proposing a charter amendment that would have essentially dumped the Park Board and putting the governance of the parks into the hands of the city council. Both Rybak and City Council president Barb Johnson opposed that idea and the council overwhelmingly rejected it.

BUT, the council did come forward with a charter amendment proposal that would give the council taxing authority that has been held by a heretofore obscure body, the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

A little background
Prior to the demise of the Library Board, the BET had consisted of mayor, the City Council president, the chairperson of the council’s ways and means committee, the president of the Park Board and the president of the Library board, and two members elected by the public.

(Time out: My guess here is that most Minneapolis residents have shared my reaction when coming to the spot on the ballot calling for voting for members of the BET. “What’s this?”)

Under the proposed charter amendment, the BET would be taken over by the City Council.

Why does this matter? The BET proposes tax levies and capital bonding for the city. The Park Board claims that loss of the BET would take away the power it has in determining those levies and give budgeting power to the City Council.

Supporters of an independent Park Board have seen all of this as a clear threat; therefore, the proposed charter amendment was created. Not only would the amendment keep governance of the parks separate from the City Council but add to Park Board power.

Mayor thinks it goes to far, does too little
Rybak has insisted that he supports strong, independent parks but that the charter proposal goes too far and does too little in addressing park problems.

“Instead of trying to put half-baked ideas on the ballot, people need to focus on fielding youth sporting teams, building soccer fields, cleaning the lakes and fixing other critical park issues,” Rybak said last month. “… As a lifelong resident who loves parks, I believe that our parks are an essential part of what makes Minneapolis great. But it is a mistake to think that because people love parks that they want huge tax increases without accountability.”

Park Board supporters bristle at Rybak’s claim that granting the Park Board so much authority would be irresponsible.

“Who has been more responsible?” asked Park Board attorney Brian Rice. “The Park Board or the City Council?”

He tossed out a couple of examples of City Council spending sprees, Block E and the move of the Shubert Theater.

“All you’re seeing,” said Rice of the effort to put the amendment on the ballot, “is an exercise in democracy.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Carol Becker on 09/01/2009 - 08:10 pm.

    I don’t want to lose sight of one key thing here. There is a proposal for a hostile takeover of the Board of Estimate by the City Council. This proposal will be on the ballot in November. It is entirely possible that this will be defeated and the City Council and Park Board will be left to have to work together. An alternative for next year is a referendum to strengthen the Board of Estimate by adding another Park Board member. This would improve discussions between the City and Park Board and hopefully reduce the acrimony that has been building over the last eight years.

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