Below is the content of an article from the current issue of the Southwest Journal, August 24-September 6, 2009.
Election could spell end for Park Board watchdogs
By Cristof Traudes
Bob Fine is a longtime commissioner on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Arlene Fried is a watchdog who often calls out Fine for his actions.
The two almost never see eye to eye, but this year is different. In rare agreement, they want the same thing in 2010: for Park Watch, Fried’s watchdog group, to come to an end.
Of course, they disagree on how to get to that point.
Fine, a 12-year veteran of the Park Board, considers Park Watch trouble. He’s had a long-standing belief that the group does little more than find fault, taking up too much of Park Board commissioners’ and staff’s time while sowing unfounded seeds of wrong-doing in commissioners’ minds.
He cites the hundreds of open-records requests filed by Park Watch members since the group’s formation in 2004. Park Watch members accounted for more than half of 275 data requests since late 2006. To fill those requests — which have ranged from asking for video footage of meetings to wanting all information, letters and e-mails applying to one or multiple topics — can take many hours of staff time, said John Goodrich, who oversees the Park Board’s responses.
Fine also points to frequent prodding on such issues as the recent Lake Calhoun south shore parking lot makeover, a project that parks staff has continuously referred to as maintenance but Park Watch members are convinced is a capital upgrade.
Fine dislikes Park Watch so much, he only refers to them as Park Fault. “To me, what’s most important is to see the Park Board not controlled by these groups. I don’t think have the best interest of the Park Board in mind,” he said.
When he announced in July that he was running for another term on the Park Board, he said one of his main motivations was to prevent the arrival of more commissioners who listen to Park Watch. Prevent that, he said, and maybe the group will have little to no influence next year.
He has an uphill battle: For the first time, two Park Watch affiliates, people who have personally filed numerous data requests and have attended Park Board meetings for years, are seeking seats on the board. One of them, District 4’s Anita Tabb, is practically a lock to win — nobody else filed to run in her race.
Fried couldn’t be happier. If Park Watch co-founder Liz Wielinski, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s endorsed candidate for District 1, also were to win, Fried said there’s a good possibility her watchdog group won’t be necessary anymore. The reason for all of the group’s data practices requests is that the current Park Board commissioners aren’t getting all of the information they need and aren’t asking for it, either, Fried said. Wielinski and Tabb already know to ask questions, which she expects them to continue to do if they were on the board. “We would finally have a board that really supports the basics of good government,” Fried said.
Tabb anticipates still talking to Park Watch if she were seated, although she’s hesitant about being referred to as a Park Watch candidate. She isn’t endorsed by the group — unlike in 2005, it won’t endorse anybody this year — and she said she never officially was a member. But she said she does listen to and respect the group. Its members, Tabb said, genuinely care about the future of the parks. “I expect all of those relationships to continue,” she said.
Wielinski doesn’t expect her work on the board to be much different from what she does now. Her goal with Park Watch, she said, always was to steer the Park Board in a better direction. Yes, that could take on a negative tone, but the job isn’t to celebrate accomplishments.
“It’s a watchdog group,” Wielinski said. “It’s not P.R. for the Park Board.”
When asked what she thought having Tabb and Wielinski elected to the board would mean, Fried sounded near ecstatic.
“I’d have to laugh,” she said. “We’d have two of our people right there, on the board.” For Park Watch, it would be “mission accomplished,” she said.
—What is Park Watch?
Park Watch is a watchdog group that tracks the actions of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Its members say they’ve improved civic discourse by drawing attention to votes that otherwise might have passed with little public comment; critics accuse them of spreading disinformation and intimidating parks staff.
The group formed in the wake of the Park Board’s hiring of Superintendent Jon Gurban, who had neither applied for the job nor gone through a screening process. Members take notes at meetings and then disseminate selected information and analysis through its blog, letters to the editor and on the online Minneapolis Issues List.
Arlene Fried, the most vocal of Park Watch’s co-founders, often speaks in strong terms when describing the Park Board, especially when it comes to high-level staff. Her words of choice include “egregious” and “outrageous.”