Fasten your seat belts, park lovers, the search for a new Minneapolis parks chief is entering its final laps.

The city has a nationally recognized park system crowned by lakes loved by people across the metro area, but the politics behind its operations can be as gnarly as buckthorn.

Twice during their past three searches for a new leader, park commissioners seemed to settle on a candidate, only to wind up appointing someone else. In 1999, the apparent favorite turned out to have barnacles that weren't uncovered until just before the vote. A different favorite dropped out in 2003, leading the board to choose current parks chief Jon Gurban, who'd neither applied nor been interviewed

On Wednesday, the four finalists to emerge from the most recent national search are slated to appear for public interviews by the nine-member Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, beginning at 5 p.m. The public can watch via live webcast at www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/webcasts.

The Minneapolis park system operates with more freedom from City Hall than do most big-city park districts. But that means a superintendent works for a political board riven at times by infighting.

Some observers say the recurrent discord has thinned the field of candidates to become the system's 11th superintendent since the system was created 127 years ago.

The job can pay up to $150,056 annually under a state salary limit, but Gurban was paid $139,818.

A look at the finalists

Best known locally but with the least park experience among the finalists is lame-duck House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, 42.

Her supporters argue that she has the persuasive skills to bring about consensus, valuable political contacts and the experience of overseeing the business side of a legislative chamber.

But she'll need to reassure commissioners that those skills compensate for a lack of park management experience.

The board said it was willing to consider nontraditional candidates, but that they should have senior management experience, preferably eight to 10 years of it.

Kelliher has headed the Minnesota House for less than four years.

It also said it wants someone who can be cooperative, seek public input, act transparently and develop partnerships -- skills that Anderson Kelliher could argue she's demonstrated in a political environment.

She'd be the unconventional choice, but critics also could view such an appointment as a consolation prize to a powerful DFLer.

Stanley G. Motley has the most park management experience among the finalists.

He's headed parks in suburbs and in county systems in the Tampa, Atlanta, St. Louis and Kansas City areas but has not led a big-city system.

At age 64, he's held 12 park jobs in 38 years, switching jobs on average just over every three years.

His résumé lists him as in his second stint of heading the county park department that serves unincorporated areas of Fulton County, Ga. But in a development that Minneapolis commissioners were unaware of, he's quit that job, citing the problem of a dwindling tax base shrinking the park budget.

"I've done all I can for Fulton," Motley said in an interview. "I'm looking for a place I could be comfortable coming in and making a difference for perhaps the last decade of my career."

Also seeking the job is a late entrant. She's Jayne S. Miller, 52, who rose from bike coordinator to head of parks, community development and other areas in 16 years with the city of Ann Arbor, Mich.

She was hired earlier this year to lead the five-county suburban regional park system outside Detroit.

She's likely to face scrutiny because she resigned abruptly last month after only six months on that job. She left in the face of mixed reactions to her proposal to reorganize the district amid shrinking park finances.

Robbinsdale native Stephen J. Rymer began his park work with 10 years in New Brighton, including six years as director.

He now heads parks in Morgan Hill, Calif., population 40,000, where he also administers emergency services contracts. Commissioners will be wondering how well the 41-year-old's experiences in those smaller jurisdictions translate to a big-city system such as Minneapolis, which has 485 full-time workers, compared with 14 in Morgan Hill.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438