Minneapolis parks Superintendent Jayne Miller has bolstered a chronically ailing budget, instilled a new level of professionalism in the park district and ably responded to natural disasters.
Now she is embarking on her most ambitious plan yet: persuading Minneapolis voters to raise property taxes by more than $210 million over 15 years, providing the most comprehensive overhaul of neighborhood parks in recent city history.
She is deeply focused on ensuring that Minneapolis’ cherished park system retains its nation-leading luster, but she must balance that against skeptical city officials and voters concerned about soaring tax bills.
“It is a huge weight to carry,” Miller said. She wrestles with all this in her rental — the district’s Dutch colonial home built for Theodore Wirth, who became parks superintendent in 1906 and transformed the system over the next three decades.
“Living in the house, it’s not like I get to go home and forget about it,” Miller said. “I feel the weight of the legacy.”
Five years into running the park system, Miller, 57, has gained a reputation for being a steady and determined leader who brought more transparency and a professional brand of management.
As the face of Minneapolis parks, she has solid backing from a board that last January extended her contract for another three years. The extension also puts her in a position to serve longer than either of her two immediate predecessors, Mary Merrill Anderson and Jon Gurban. She’s only the 11th superintendent in the 132-year history of the park system.
Miller’s effort to instill a more businesslike ethic has created conflict at the $103 million a year parks department.
An internal climate report completed earlier this year found that employees view Miller as a micromanager too quick to react to commissioner and public pressure. They described a toxic, dysfunctional headquarters atmosphere.
Her approach has jarred some staffers accustomed to what had been a more entrenched bureaucracy that generally promoted people from within. Miller represents a break from that, and has recruited three of her four top-ranking assistants from outside the district.
The superintendent’s backers say her management style is precisely what was needed.
“It’s a much more professionally run organization,” Park Board President Liz Wielinski said.
Her most recent job review by commissioners praised many aspects of her leadership, but faulted her for sometimes being overly blunt, intense and impatient with staff.
Miller said she has high expectations but is working to be more patient. But she also said that Minneapolis residents are passionate about their parks, and that park employees must be responsive to them and the board.
“Her employees say she’s a hard person to work for because she has high standards,” said Booker Hodges, former president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, who praises Miller for her response to issues of racial bias the organization raised in 2010.
Miller, who makes $165,000 a year, has tackled the Park Board’s chronic budget issues in part by overhauling how crews dispose of tree waste and collect garbage. Miller estimates that those and similar operating improvements have cut costs by $2.3 million a year.
An avid biker, Miller also is a devoted user of the park system. But she was forced to spend August away from the office to recover from a double knee replacement.
Miller has improved Park Board relations with City Hall and other key governmental players, relationships that could be crucial in getting the park department’s financial request on next year’s ballot.
Those good relations helped get a fee enacted to collect money from developers for parks, after that proposal languished for years at City Hall and the Park Board. She has pushed for technology upgrades in the park system, most noticeably a better website. She also has enrolled promising staffers in college classes to learn park and recreation management.
Miller gets high marks, too, for her response to disasters such as the 2011 North Side tornado, when not only did park crews perform their traditional tree disposal role, but park shelters were opened as a temporary refuge for storm victims.
Miller has no doubt that her biggest success or failure lies ahead, when she takes a lead on the multimillion-dollar parks funding referendum that has languished for 15 years.
“If we can pull that off,” she said, “it’ll be a game-changer.”