The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is one of the most influential but under-the-radar local government bodies in Minnesota.
Created by the Legislature and ratified by voters in Minneapolis 130 years ago, the board oversees a proposed 2014 general operating budget of about $66 million, runs its own police force, and manages about 6,744 acres of land and water in the city, including golf courses, gardens, bike and walking trails, playgrounds, and local and regional parks.
The park system logs about 18 million visits annually, meaning good management of park resources is vital not just to the city but to the entire Twin Cities metro area, with regional residents enjoying these amenities in large numbers.
The Park Board's nine commissioners serve four-year terms, with six representing specific areas of Minneapolis and three "at-large" commissioners serving as citywide representatives. The Star Tribune Editorial Board is endorsing in the at-large race.
Ten candidates are competing for the three at-large seats, including one vacated by longtime Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine, who is running for mayor. The at-large field includes two incumbents, in addition to a former Park Board commissioner who is seeking to serve again and several candidates who have run in previous races.
The candidates were well-informed and passionate about Park Board issues, making it challenging to winnow the field. But John Erwin, M. Annie Young and Jason Stone stood out as the strongest candidates and merit our endorsement.
• • •
Erwin, 52, an incumbent who served as the Park Board's president for the past four years, provided energetic and positive yet tough-minded leadership when the board needed it most. In late 2009, tensions between the board and a past superintendent were running high. Relations with City Hall also were less than ideal, and the Park Board faced budget pressures. Erwin, who had served as a commissioner in the early part of the decade before taking a hiatus, was quickly elected as the board's president shortly after taking office. His leadership played a key role in re-energizing the entire organization. Soon after his election, the board cut unproductive ties with the previous superintendent and landed a talented new superintendent. The likable Erwin's strong people skills helped mend fences with various organizations. He also took a deep dive into the budget and pushed to downsize administrative costs, using the savings to help make repairs and investments in neighborhood parks.
It's unusual to find a leader like Erwin who thinks both big and small. The board's push to redevelop the Mississippi riverfront upstream from the Stone Arch Bridge to Fridley — a project that will improve river access for residents of the city's underserved North Side — is an example of Erwin's long-term vision. So is the board's increased streetside tree planting, which is up 40 percent over the past three years.
Yet Erwin has also advocated for smaller-scale yet still laudable changes. A "Night Owls" basketball program reaches out to at-risk youths. The board under his leadership also increased lifeguarding at local beaches following drowning deaths.
His professional expertise — he's a professor in the University of Minnesota's horticultural science program — also will aid the board's fight against the emerald ash borer, an invasive species threatening the city's beloved urban forest.
Not only has Erwin earned another term as commissioner, but the board would do well to elect him as its president once again.
• • •
Young, 71, has served on the Park Board since 1990. The city is fortunate that she's running for another four-year term.
Young's forthrightness and her longtime push as a member of the Green Party for better recycling and environmentally conscious policies have won her fans even among the Park Board's most vocal critics. Her long years on the board have given her institutional memory and perspective that is invaluable as her colleagues set a course for the future.
As a resident of the city's Phillips neighborhood, Young has long been a strong voice for the city's struggling neighborhoods and at-risk youths — two constituencies that the Park Board needs to prioritize. The community organizer is also someone that residents in these neighborhoods feel comfortable talking to when they have concerns about park resources. Her hard work and respectful treatment of constituents through the years have earned her a reputation as a commissioner who not only is accessible but a good listener. The Park Board can't afford to lose Young's outreach skills and her links to underserved communities.
• • •
Stone, 42, has earned our endorsement for Park Board commissioner in two previous but unsuccessful races, and does so a third time. An information-technology professional, he is one of the city's small but devoted band of Park Board followers who watch its business closely. There would be little learning curve for Stone if he were elected because he would bring so much knowledge of Park Board processes and personalities.
He is described as a "maverick" by those who have worked with him on community issues. That independent thinking would benefit the board, which has long had a reputation for cliquishness. Stone also has served as a hockey and baseball coach for kids 10 and under and is a strong advocate for getting at-risk kids more involved in Park Board programming. In addition, he brings experience in public service after serving on the Minneapolis Capital Long Range Improvement Committee and the Minneapolis Citizen Environmental Advocacy Committee. He also worked to organize neighbors against airport noise last year.
Stone is professional, knowledgeable and persistent. He's also a hard worker like Liz Wielinski and Anita Tabb, two board members elected in 2009. Stone's election will add to the positive energy these two commissioners brought to the board.
To learn more about the endorsed at-large Park Board candidates, go to their websites: erwinforparks.org, annieyoung.net, jasonforminneapolisparks.com. To read a Star Tribune story about all the at-large candidates, go to http://tinyurl.com/lgsjddm.