Many Minnesotans yawned through last year’s campaign for governor — partly because Mark Dayton was so well known. Or so we thought.
Name recognition: check.
Decades’ worth of a public record: check.
Unfortunately, we’ve recently discovered that Dayton is actually a bare-knuckled, Jersey-style Chris Christie clone, but with a Minnesota Twist: total, in-your-face transparency.
Re-election-immunized Boss Mark and his Metropolitan Council enforcers want to cut the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s budget by $3.8 million over two years over its “efforts to obstruct progress on the Southwest Light Rail Transit project.” That quote isn’t from some about-to-be-fired underling — it’s directly from Dayton’s budget, and at his news conference Dayton confirmed his intention.
To paraphrase: Time for some budget jams, Park Board.
This is so sad. Let’s compare today’s authoritarian process with our historical record.
When the Minneapolis park system was founded in the 1880s, we valued both business success and good stewardship of the Earth — and didn’t see those values in conflict. We thought ahead 100 years, asking how our values and blessings could be carried forward for future generations. And we believed in a “republican form of government” — founded on the consent of the governed.
We thought public and private interests could and should be coordinated. In 1883, Col. William King explicitly advocated for our park system as a gigantic real estate investment: “For what is now a mere bagatelle we can lay out a system of parks which will be a pride of the city for all time to come, [and] will add millions to the taxable real estate of the city.”
When the City Council objected to giving the Park Board arbitrary power without voter approval, the Legislature responded — requiring a referendum. The Knights of Labor still protested, fearing that in year one — before board members were elected — “the door is left open to rob the working classes of their homes and make driveways for the rich at the expense of the poor.”
When the controversial referendum was approved 58 percent to 42 percent, the Park Board immediately established the first three ward parks in the three wards that had voted no.
The Knights of Labor held a picnic at Lake Harriet in 1887, and became supporters of the new park system.
Much of the land around the Chain of Lakes and along Minnehaha Creek was donated to the Park Board or sold to it at low prices — landholders knew their nearby land would appreciate.
Our republican form of government worked back then. Referendums were held, squeaky wheels were greased. An enduring citywide consensus was built. And it still stands today.
Minneapolis has the best big-city park system in the country not despite referendums and Park Board elections, but because of these vital roots of democracy and the consent of the governed.
Today it seems we’re in a different — even opposite — world.
The Legislature didn’t require a Vikings stadium referendum — it prohibited it.
The Metropolitan Council isn’t elected — it’s appointed.
Unfortunately, Dayton’s brass-knuckles approach to persuading the Park Board is part of a larger pattern — the Met Council routinely threatens or punishes communities economically if they don’t operate in obedience to the council’s long-range dictates.
Fortunately, our republican form of government is still with us, and it’s still working. Republicans now control the state House of Representatives and have set up a Met Council oversight committee. Out-of-control light-rail boondoggles are being challenged on many fronts, including in federal court. And, yes, by our elected Park Board.
Our consensus-building Minnesota Nice tradition makes it easier to check what is for many anger and outrage over Dayton’s overbearing approach to the Park Board. But for those of us who know our Park Board’s history and want to repeat it — and for many who want more careful study of our transit options — there’s another reason to smile.
Bob “Again” Carney Jr. is a lobbyist and activist in Minneapolis.