After a tumultuous year for both the city and its parks, it's heartening to see a number of well-qualified political newcomers seeking positions on the nine-member Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Four of its nine members are not seeking re-election. That includes Chris Meyer in District 1 (Northeast Minneapolis) and Kale Severson in District 2 (the North Side), both of whom are stepping down after a single term.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board made its recommendations for the at-large seats on Wednesday. In the six geographically-based parks districts, we're recommending four who, if elected, would take their seats for the first time in January.
Billy Menz is the sole candidate in District 1. He's an ESL teacher, youth baseball coach and union organizer. As Meyer's opponent in 2017, he had Green Party endorsement; this year, he has DFL backing. Menz did not seek Star Tribune endorsement.
By contrast, a lively contest for the District 2 open seat has developed among three credible contenders. We give Becka Thompson the edge. A math teacher with an MBA degree from Augsburg University, Thompson, 46, has a mature demeanor and an understanding of leadership and management best practices that would make her an asset to a board that could use more discipline and internal cohesion.
A Minneapolis native, Thompson is a single mother who says her top priority on the board would be to keep city parks safe and functional for children, teens and families. Like the Editorial Board, she disagreed with the board's 2020 decision to allow homeless encampments in some parks. She vows to strive to keep the park board "in its lane" on policy matters. That focus is needed.
Mike Shelton and Eric Moran, the other two District 2 candidates, would bring different strengths to board service. Shelton, 48, is an employment recruiter for Twin Cities Rise with deep community connections on the North Side, including decades of service as a youth sports coach.
Moran, 40, is an IT professional who formerly worked for the city of St. Paul. He has the perspective of a resident of the rapidly growing North Loop. Moran has DFL endorsement.
In District 3, which includes southeast Minneapolis, incumbent A.K. Hassan, also elected for the first time in 2017, is on the ballot. Hassan declined to participate in the Star Tribune endorsement process. We're troubled by such unresponsiveness by an incumbent, and we hope voters are, too.
District 3 challenger Becky Alper earns our endorsement. She's a promising newcomer who is keen to adapt the parks to a changing climate. Alper, 38, is a professional transportation planner previously employed by Move Minneapolis, a nonprofit advocacy organization for multimodal commuting. She says she was drawn to candidacy in part because she repeatedly contacted Hassan last year and got no response. She promises District 3 the active representation it deserves.
Also on the ballot in District 3 is Mohamoud Hassan, who did not respond to Star Tribune queries about his candidacy.
"A colossal error." That's how last year we described the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's June 2020 decision to allow homeless encampments in city parks. The tent encampments that sprang up were magnets for criminal activity that threatened the safety of both their occupants and their neighbors, all of whom deserved better from the parks' stewards.
Board President Jono Cowgill carries that record as he seeks a second term. In an interview with the Editorial Board, he defended the encampments decision as evidence that the park board was "taking the moment seriously." That flawed judgment is reason enough to prefer challenger Elizabeth Shaffer in District 4, which sweeps west from downtown.
Had 2020 been a less tumultuous year, we might view Cowgill's re-election bid more favorably. Unlike several other board members first elected in 2017, Cowgill, 33, an urban planner, has appeared fully engaged in the board's work.
Other members of the faction-riven board turned to him when they looked for a new president in December 2019 to succeed Brad Bourn (who is not seeking re-election this year). "I was the only person to have a talking relationship with every other member," Cowgill said.
He adds that he does not intend to seek the board's presidency if re-elected. But that decision does not shield him from accountability for the past 21 months. In addition to the encampments fiasco, the Editorial Board disagreed when Cowgill voted with a 5-4 majority to close park facilities to the Minnesota State Patrol — a petty move wisely vetoed by Mayor Jacob Frey.
Shaffer, 55, says she would have chosen differently. A former teacher and retail manager, Shaffer says she learned the value of public-private partnerships for parks as the head of the Friends of Thomas Lowry Park. It raised $340,000 from donors to hasten the repair of a deteriorating water feature.
Shaffer says that example of "neighbors coming together around supporting a park" ought to be encouraged. Cowgill voted for the Lowry Park improvements, but argues that such private funding "leads to greater inequities" around the city and says he won't invite more. We prefer Shaffer's spirit.
The choice in District 5 is easy. Incumbent Steffanie Musich, 43, has been a voice of reason on the board since first elected in 2013. An IT analyst by profession, she is also a founder and former president of the Friends of Lake Nokomis. In a year that's sure to bring substantial turnover, the stability and institutional memory she can bring to a third term will be assets to the board. Two other candidates — Justin Cermak and Charles Rodgers — are on the District 5 ballot, but only Musich sought Star Tribune endorsement.
An open seat in District 6 in southwest Minneapolis has attracted four candidates — three political newcomers and one veteran, attorney Bob Fine, 72, who served on the board from 1997 to 2013. While Fine's enduring commitment to public service is commendable, first-time candidate Cathy Abene is a better choice.
Abene, 57, is exceptionally qualified to shoulder the board's resource management responsibilities. She is a civil engineer who has worked in the public sector for more than 20 years and is now principal civil engineer at the University of Minnesota, where she manages natural and man-made water systems. She's also well-schooled in institutional management and long-range planning.
Also on the District 6 ballot are Barb Schlaefer, 61, a communications professional with extensive experience in the public sector, and Risa Hustad, 31, an outdoors industry professional who also serves on the city's Capital Long-Range Improvement Committee. While both would bring strengths to board service, Abene outshines them.
Opinion editor's note: The Star Tribune Editorial Board operates separately from the newsroom, and no news editors or reporters were involved in the endorsement process. To read all of our endorsements, go to startribune.com/package-opinion-endorsements/.