Activists pushing for racial equity have continued to pressure the Minneapolis Park Board, forcing meetings into temporary recess and even showing up at the doorstep of Park Superintendent Jayne Miller.
The most outspoken and persistent critics — a trio of present or former park workers with grievances, supported by activists from the Minneapolis NAACP and other activists — accuse the park system of racial bias in its hiring, promotion and discipline of staff.
Their accusations and chanting in board meetings have grown so frequent that the Park Board now has a dedicated Web page covering 17 related topics.
In one case, the board has sent a former employee a warning to stop referring to park employees as “house slaves” or “tokens” or risk banishment from future meetings under the board’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
Commissioner John Erwin said he will ask the board committee he chairs on Wednesday to adopt a set of decorum standards for board meetings. Violation of those standards would allow park police to remove the offender. He said he’s doing so because no clear standards exist.
The board’s chief critics, including Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds, didn’t respond to calls for comment on the proposal and their protest tactics.
The group of about 20 protesters have been chanting during Park Board meetings, prompting five temporary recesses in the last 12 weeks.
On Aug. 28, some went to the home of Miller, whom they have tried to oust from her job as superintendent. The noise at 8 a.m. was enough to prompt a neighbor to call 911. No charges were filed.
Miller said Friday that she expects criticism and the recent allegations have been challenging, but she thinks the organization does good work and her commitment to the job is “unwavering.”
At Park Board meetings, the group has dominated the period during meetings when the public may address the board. During that time, board policy discourages commissioners from responding to criticism.
The activists have gone so far as to criticize Commissioner Liz Wielinski, who needs to watch her blood sugar, for eating during a meeting.
Neither board President Anita Tabb nor her predecessor, Wielinski, has had protesters removed from the meetings.
Tabb was abroad and could not be reached for comment. Wielinski, who resigned the presidency after a shouting match with Levy-Pounds at a meeting, has said that she has some sympathy for protest, given that she often criticized park policies before she was elected in 2009.
In contrast, City Council President Barbara Johnson has enforced a harder line at meetings of the full council, although some committees have been interrupted by activists.
She keeps a notice in her drawer to “tell them that if they disturb the council meeting they’ll be asked to leave, and then I’ve worked with our security people to have people removed,” she said. “It’s inappropriate for people to call out council members while they’re discussing an issue, and if I’m chair, I’m not going to put up with it.”
Erwin said the Park Board will take the unusual step on Wednesday of having its attorney read aloud a summary of publicly available personnel records of at least three present or former minority employees who have complained they were mistreated as park employees. Activists have repeatedly raised concerns about the employees’ treatment at Park Board meetings.
One is Cynthia Wilson, who has been suspended, reprimanded and demoted in the last six years of a 28-year park career in which she’d previously had no discipline and good to excellent performance reviews. She has alleged discrimination and retaliatory treatment by Miller and the Park Board, but state and federal judges dismissed her claims.
Wilson cites a 2012 review by outside consultants who found racial issues and distrust creating rifts between the board and those who work and play in parks. Miller hasn’t done enough about that, she and others say.
Two former employees — Hashim Yonis and Carlos Zhingre — have also been among the most vocal protesters at meetings. Yonis was convicted in 2015 of keeping money he collected from people paying to rent park system soccer fields. Zhingre was a community engagement coordinator for less than a year, but said minority employees get disparate treatment and face retaliation.