Forest Lake’s weekly Arts in the Park summer concert series this year will feature an Elvis act, a new paddleboard and music festival and a finale complete with a reggae band and corn feed.
But while the Tuesday night festivities will continue through August at Lakeside Park, the Park Board that helped organize the event in addition to overseeing the city’s two dozen parks is no more.
Earlier this month, City Council members voted unanimously to abolish the board, which had some discretion over spending money within its budget. In its place, the council established a Parks and Trails Commission, which will serve in an advisory capacity, but have no spending authority.
Council Member Mike Freer, who serves as Park Board liaison, said the change was “more about alignment” than specific issues.
“I just believe that government decisions … should be made by people who are elected so they can be held accountable for their decisions,” he said.
Freer said he agreed with Karen Morehead, who had served as Park Board chairwoman but was not appointed to the new commission, that the board had done a good job.
But Mayor Stev Stegner said that while Park Board members have been passionate about their role, he had seen “a lot of turmoil” between the board and council.
“It doesn’t feel like we’ve been on the same team a number of times,” Stegner said. “So that’s what makes it very challenging.”
One apparent sore point, Morehead said, was the decision by the board last year to approve spending of park dedication funds, before that money had been received, to pay for a massive playground structure known as the “forest dragon.”
Forest Lake-based manufacturer Themed Concepts is building the 16-foot-tall winged dragon, which kids can climb, and plans to install it in the city’s Cedar Park. The dragon, installation and lifetime warranty would retail for $150,000, the company has said, but the project will cost the city only $38,000.
Morehead said recently that the board had good intentions, even though the City Council “didn’t agree that we could make a decision on money that wasn’t in yet. We went and apologized. If that indeed was true, it was an oversight because of the excitement of this company wanting to participate with us.”
Morehead, a board member for 10 years, told the council before its vote that she was surprised and disappointed.
“I was kind of thinking maybe the Park Board has done a great job and a ‘thank you’ would be in order rather than a demotion to an advisory group,” she said, adding that she was hoping to get an answer as to why the issue was brought up in the first place.
“What was the offense that happened, that it would even be a discussion?” she said. “I felt we worked really hard.”
Freer said recently that making the switch to an advisory parks commission had been something he had considered ever since he first got on the council in 2010.
Making the change, however, required a unanimous council vote. Freer said he doubted that support for such a move could have materialized before last November, when several City Council seats turned over.
Susan Young, a former council member, asked current members at the meeting earlier this month what the policy reasons were for favoring an advisory commission. She said that the city already had plenty of board oversight with the mayor’s authority to appoint members and the council’s ability to approve the board budget and paying of its bills.
“My concern,’’ she said, “is that in this city, the Park Board provides a very strong balance of opinion and has a vision that sometimes the City Council has not had because there were so many other pressing issues.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is email@example.com.