A recent study of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board reports that racial tensions and distrust have created severe rifts between the board and those who work and play in the city's parks.

In an interim report sent to park board employees on Jan. 25, consultants cited issues ranging from discrimination against minority employees to failures to "connect" with inner-city communities. Such problems, also highlighted in recent complaints from the local NAACP, require immediate attention, the consultants wrote.

In December, the local branch of the NAACP informed Park Board commissioners that, during the previous six months, it had received more than 160 complaints from employees and park users alleging racial discrimination by the agency.

In a letter inviting employees to discuss the report at a series of meetings, Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller said she will work with the consultants, commissioners and staff to address the complaints.

"This superintendent and this board hear you, take your concerns seriously, and will act with you to make needed meaningful changes," Miller wrote.

The superintendent noted that the report also found numerous strong points in the board's operations and told employees, "Unfortunately, many of the deficiencies and issues noted are not new but have been present for years."

The Brooklyn Park consultant hired by the board last fall concurred that the problems were longstanding and deeply rooted. The board, wrote Betty Webb and Gary Miller, will need a "laser like focus on well designed and implemented transformational strategies over a long period of time."

The report was not due until April, but Webb and Miller delivered the interim assessment after the NAACP complaints surfaced, saying the allegations "elevated our findings to a sense of immediacy."

The introduction to the report noted: "It is not an overreaction to describe the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) as demoralized internally -- where employees across racial and ethnic lines feel stymied in their ability to effectively meet job responsibilities."

After interviewing more than 100 people, consultants said many employees described feelings of fear, resentment and racial distrust. The report said there also is widespread discontent about the unfavorable treatment of black employees as well as other minorities. Many workers said they were afraid to speak to their superiors about such problems.

Lack of cultural 'competency'

People commented on the under-representation of people of color in the board's upper management and complained about a lack of "cultural competency" and a disregard for cultural differences. Better communication and more sensitivity to community values might have helped avoid recent controversies such as the proposal to put a dog park in Martin Luther King Park, which was greeted with disdain by many in the black community.

The report also mentions other areas to be addressed, such as the human resources department, which is viewed as overly bureaucratic, and recreation centers, which some complain have been neglected.

Consultants made a set of recommendations including that the park board clearly and collaboratively develop a set of strategic priorities, reinvent the previous diversity council to build cultural bridges, and do more to support the community outreach departments.

Minneapolis NAACP President Booker T. Hodges, whose December letter outlined the group's complaints, couldn't be reached for comment on the new study.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495