The Minneapolis Park Board is embroiled in a roiling debate over whether it should more than double its own pay, with vocal supporters insisting that higher salaries will attract a broader array of members.
The nine-member board saw a massive turnover last fall, with some longtime stalwarts choosing not to run. Six new members were swept in on a progressive wave of candidates wanting the board to reflect the diversity of park users.
“I do believe we would get a diverse group of applicants if we increase pay,” said Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw, who suggested a salary of about $30,000. “I’m looking toward the future.”
Commissioner Meg Forney said Wednesday that any raise needs to be thoroughly vetted. “It’s a challenge. Do you want to be taking funds away from programming?”
Park Board members make $12,438 a year plus benefits for what’s considered to be a part-time job. The debate is part of a broader push to raise salaries for elected officials nationwide, including in Minneapolis, Ramsey County and at the State Capitol.
At the Park Board, some commissioners have argued that the evolving makeup of the board is reason for change. The old one was largely white and well off, and the current one is younger and more racially diverse.
“The Park Board we have now is the most diverse and progressive Park Board that Minneapolis has ever elected,” Commissioner Chris Meyer said in an e-mail Wednesday. “The main reason it remained conservative for so long is that with a $12,000 salary, it would tend to be only wealthy or retired people who would run for it, and both of those demographics skew conservative.”
Board President Brad Bourn echoed Meyer’s theme, saying he believes this is the first board that truly reflects the community that elected it.
“We need to create space that allow more people who are traditionally left on the margins to run for office, win, lead and serve,” he wrote in a Facebook post this week. “I applaud this board for having transparent, difficult conversations.”
The idea was first floated last spring when Bourn and interim Superintendent Mary Merrill talked about hiring a liaison for the public.
That sparked a debate about work loads, pay and whether commissioners needed additional help when they already have staff members.
“I’m perplexed why we’re discussing hiring someone to do our jobs for us,” said Commissioner Steffanie Musich at the meeting. “We were elected to provide constituent services to the people who elected us.”
Vetaw agreed and said, “I’m more inclined to review our salaries than I am in hiring new staff to help me with my work.” The board later hired a liaison with annual compensation not to exceed $65,233.
Meyer said a modest increase would allow board members more time to administer the $110 million Park Board budget.
It oversees 6,804 acres of land and 160 parks with more than half of its budget coming from property taxes.
The pay issue surfaced this month when former Commissioner Scott Vreeland wrote a scathing Facebook post criticizing any raise.
“At one of the first meetings new commissioners complained about the amount of work they had to do and how time consuming it was, and about hiring assistants who would work for them. (Didn’t they understand what the job was and how much it paid?),” Vreeland wrote.
Arlene Fried, a member of watchdog group Park Watch, said Wednesday that any talk of a raise is inappropriate and premature: “My feeling is that the commissioners should have known what the stipend is; it’s not a salary.”
Forney said the board has been economically diverse, referring to Annie Young, a commissioner who died in January.
“Annie Young was definitely low income, and she wasn’t asking for a pay raise,” she said. “I didn’t do it to get an income. It’s because it’s something we [Annie and I] believe in and we know is important.”