The writing of tickets in and around Scott County's parks has seen a dramatic drop since the county took policing power back from the Three Rivers Park District, and irritation over the tactics employed by officers of a neighboring county appears to have played a role in the way their partnership has been reconfigured.

Only eight citations have been issued this year, compared with 255 in 2010.

"I live on the edge of one of the parks," said Scott County Board Chairman Tom Wolf, "and I could see them setting up speed traps outside the park. I was never ticketed, but I found it odd that Three Rivers police or whatever they have were kind of sitting there radaring people.

"And biking, too -- tickets for going too fast on the path. That would be a citation."

The release of the new data indicates that the longstanding partnership between the two counties has been pricklier than has been acknowledged.

Boe Carlson, the associate Three Rivers superintendant in charge of public safety, said the steep drop in citations occurred because Scott no longer patrols parks as intensively as his agency once did.

While there were reasons for Three Rivers to act as it did, he said, there was a public relations problem.

"Perception is reality," he said. "If the public is not aware of the role that officers working for Three Rivers play, it is a tough sell. Why in the world is Three Rivers down here in Scott County writing speeding tickets? I don't blame them at all. It is a hard piece to explain."

The back story

Decades ago, a poorer, more countrified Scott County enlisted suburban Hennepin's park system, now known as Three Rivers, as a sort of big brother that would come in and handle its major parks.

As the county grew, people questioned why a much bigger, more suburban county still lacked control over its major parks.

Then came a new arrangement in which the two would come closer to merging functions: Scott County would take on new roles in parks that Three Rivers controlled, while Three Rivers would help develop the county's own infant parks system.

But to the chagrin of some Three Rivers commissioners and Hennepin lawmakers, it has emerged that Three Rivers has quietly felt it has not been fully compensated by Scott County over the years. The county's top managers are recommending fattening the check the county sends north every year.

Last week, updating his commissioners on the partnership, the county's parks chief, Mark Themig, mentioned the near-disappearance of the parks citation and spoke of it as a change in philosophy.

Public safety functions have moved from Three Rivers to local law enforcement agencies, he said. And the approach has changed, away from ticketing and toward warnings.

The number of warnings has also fallen, from 118 in 2010 to 37 through Sept. 7 this year. So far, he said, the parks are just as safe, "and our visitors are happier."

Three Rivers' Carlson said he wouldn't call it a change in philosophy as much as a transition from "self-generated calls" (officers frequently on the scene, noticing problems) to "user-generated calls" (park users reporting problems to local officers). "When that happens, you will see a steep decline."

That doesn't mean that Three Rivers' enforcement activities were heavyhanded, he said. Officers did watch for speeders and they did act when bikers were "out of control" and endangering others.

There are still staffers on site who can report problems, and the parks are very safe, he said.

Ways to benefit each other

Themig praised Three Rivers' work on a number of projects, including prairie burns, which take special expertise. Three Rivers is expected to make a "major investment" at Cleary Lake Regional Park, he said, redoing roads and improving handicapped accessibility and the golf course.

Conversely, Scott County expects to invest in Three Rivers-run parks within the county and offer its non-parks staff to help with improvements there.

The benefits of the arrangement were on display one afternoon last week: Days before a major new regional park in Prior Lake opens under the county's guidance, a Three Rivers employee who does nothing but mapping was out meticulously inventorying everything from the layout of electrical lines to the positioning of water fountains.

Indeed, there were as many Three Rivers staff on site at that moment as the county has parks workers.

That kind of combined effort is a model of government efficiency, Wolf said.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285