An interruption of a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board meeting Wednesday led to a confrontation in which board President Liz Wielinski shouted at Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
Wielinski lost her temper when Levy-Pounds and other activists tried to raise concerns about racial disparities in parks staffing and facilities at the meeting, even though the agenda did not allow for public comment.
“I’m tired of this. You keep interrupting our meetings,” Wielinski shouted after Levy-Pounds began to speak. “You’re a rude, interrupting adult.”
Levy-Pounds, who has been involved in multiple protests over racial disparities in recent months, accused Wielinski of exercising white supremacy and speaking to her as a slave. The exchange was recorded on video and later posted on Facebook.
“I’m not your child. Don’t ever talk to me like that again,” Levy-Pounds, a law professor, told Wielinski.
She and others in the group then accused the board and Superintendent Jayne Miller of not adequately addressing concerns about disparities in the promotion and discipline of employees of color. They spoke for about 15 minutes, as Wielinski and supporters of Levy-Pounds took videos of each other.
“I was berated and yelled at like a child,” Levy-Pounds said Thursday.
Wielinski said Thursday that she has apologized to the board for an exchange she compared to “The Jerry Springer Show,” but said she has no apology to make to Levy-Pounds. She said Levy-Pounds and others could avail themselves of the board’s regularly scheduled public comment period at other meetings.
“I think I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but we were within our rights to ask people to respect the process,” she said. She attributed the vehemence of her reaction to a traffic snarl on the way to the meeting and a health condition. “My biggest concern is that we won’t get the business of the Park Board done,” she said.
Apologies and concerns
The meeting Wednesday, technically a board retreat, was held at Loring Park to give Miller direction on the park budget and suggested tax increases for next year. It is common practice not to designate time for public comment at such meetings. The board later holds a public hearing on the budget. It also offers citizens three-minute comment periods during regular board meetings.
Three board members said Thursday they regretted Wielinski’s response to Levy-Pounds. Park Board Vice President Scott Vreeland said the board could have voted to change its rules to allow the group to speak for a few minutes.
Levy-Pounds said she wasn’t familiar with board procedures and rose to ask if the comments would be allowed before Wielinski erupted.
Levy-Pounds and law students she supervises at the University of St. Thomas wrote to the Park Board on April 6, alleging discriminatory hiring practices in which whites get preference, harsher discipline is imposed on employees of color and employees face a culture of retaliation when they speak out. They sought the reinstatement of several former and demoted employees.
They raised the issues again at a City Council hearing last month.
On Wednesday at the Park Board, Vreeland said, Levy-Pounds “gave her speech and left. This wasn’t really an attempt at conversation. It was an attempt at political theater.”
Commissioner John Erwin said he understood Wielinski’s frustration after the Park Board has provided information that disputes some of the group’s claims. But, he added, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the board chair to yell at colleagues or constituents.”
Park officials responded to the April letter from Levy-Pounds and the students with a lengthy list of initiatives taken to increase workforce diversity, cultural awareness and racial equity. But as of March, people of color make up slightly less than one-quarter of park employees, up only about 4 percentage points since Miller became superintendent in 2010.
The Park Board was once ahead of other public elected bodies in Minneapolis for black representation, but is now behind them.
Levy-Pounds said Thursday that she was shocked to find an all-white Park Board at the meeting. “How can you effectively represent the city of Minneapolis when none of you are people of color?” she said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438