Behind 'world class' Minneapolis parks, worker unrest simmers

Minneapolis parks
A view of the baseball field at Farview Park on Thursday, May 29, 2013 in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

When a national conservation group named the city's park system the nation's best for the second straight year, leaders of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board saw it as validation.

They saw the repeat honor as proof that the city has a world-class parks system. It was also a shining moment for Superintendent Jayne Miller, whose supporters credit her with delivering sweeping change and increased professionalism in just over three years to the system of nearly 200 park properties and 47 recreation centers.

But behind the accolades, there is growing unrest among the people who work for the city's park and recreation board, from the employees who prune the trees to those who run the rec programs. The night before Minneapolis received the award, recreation center workers took the rare step of voting against their proposed union contract. Some were concerned about how new standards aimed at making sure workers are paid according to their competency levels would affect them.

Some critics of the system say the park board is a complex and problematic system in which workers suffer from low morale and fear of reprisal.

"It's a tale of two park boards," said Tony Kelly, field representative for City Employees' Local 363, which represents arborists and maintenance staff.

"On the one hand, we're celebrating having a fantastic system that we're all very proud of," said Kelly, who previously worked in park maintenance. "But I also see this tremendous loss of opportunity and a systematic disparate treatment of the seasonal employees."

Some of the discord may have resulted from the board's efforts to trim costs. The agency's current general fund revenue is about $77 million, or $10 million less than what it had about a decade ago. The park board is also managing a work force that's about a fifth smaller than it was in 2003. It employs about 490 full-time and 1,700 temporary workers.

But Kelly said park board leaders routinely leave vacant positions they've budgeted for. That creates a vacuum in which workers are stretched thin, he said.

"I see people who are doing their best just to hold it together," he said.

Pam French, the park board's human resources director, said the number of unfilled positions is not unusual given the amount of attrition and retirements for the organization. French said the agency is working to fill the positions, despite limited staff in her department to process new hires. The park board also plans to soon begin certifying seasonal workers so they can have an increased shot of eventually landing full-time jobs with benefits.

The challenges go beyond staffing. Earlier this spring, a glimpse of rebellion surfaced at the open-comment period of a regular park board meeting.

Many of my colleagues are very demoralized. They feel a strong sense of fear. They also feel a great sense of distrust.

"Many of my colleagues are very demoralized," said Bob Ramphal, a former recreation center director who recently retired after 46 years of service. "They feel a strong sense of fear. They also feel a great sense of distrust."

Ramphal told the commissioners he would like to have made it to 50 years, but decided to leave because of the workplace climate.

His comments echoed a report that came out two years ago, when an outside consultant hired by the park board used that very word — "demoralized" — to describe the organization. The study revealed that workers complained of fear, simmering anger and resentment, vindictiveness, retaliation, and racial distrust and suspicion.

Ramphal said he was targeted when administrators reassigned him to oversee a rec center on the city's north side.

"Farview Park happened to be one of the roughest, toughest parks in the city of Minneapolis," he said in an interview. "At that time, I was 72 years of age. What was the reason for that? My only speculation is, it's called age discrimination. They were trying to force me out."

Ramphal said administrators moved him two more times before he retired this year.

Park board executives categorically deny that age played into Ramphal's reassignments, but declined to say more due to privacy rules that limit their comments on personnel.

They say some of the employee anxiety stems from a top-to-bottom restructuring that began after Miller was hired as the superintendent in late 2010. The changes range from a shakeup of upper management to changes in forestry practices and equipment aimed at reducing on-the-job injuries.

Jayne Miller
Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, photographed during an interview Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at park headquarters.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Miller said it saddens her that some people feel morale hasn't improved much under her watch.

"I also believe that for some people, the change is really, really hard," she said. "And there's a level of accountability in the organization today that wasn't here five years ago, 10 years ago. And I think that's scary for people."

The park board has paid about $315,000 to a Michigan consultant who has worked on the reorganization.

In Miller's mind, it was money well spent. When she took over the agency after a period of dysfunction and turmoil, Miler said, she found outdated business practices that infuriated the public, such as haphazard closing times for the city's wading pools and rec centers.

Her supporters, including park board President Liz Wielinski, credit Miller for putting citizens first and bringing more transparency to park projects. Wielinski was part of a wave of new park board commissioners who, as one of their first orders of business, voted not to rehire former superintendent Jon Gurban.

There's a level of accountability in the organization today that wasn't here five years ago, 10 years ago. And I think that's scary for people.

"When we hired Jayne, we came in with the expectations that she was going to be an agent of change, and things were going to be different," Wielinski said. "I think Jayne has done what we as a board have asked her to do — which is make some dramatic changes and bring us up to what would be considered a professional way of operating."

One of those dramatic changes includes a ramping up of diversity efforts to make sure the park board looks more like the community it serves. Jayne Miller, who is white, points to figures showing gains in the percentage of employees of color now filling positions at the executive, manager, and professional ranks.

For example, employees of color now make up 15 percent of managers at the park board, up from zero percent in 2010, Miller said. Racial minorities make up more than a fifth of the total workforce, and that hasn't changed over the past four years.

Despite Miller's efforts to recruit and retain employees of color and bring more consistent practices to the workplace, some employees still allege disparate treatment between white and nonwhite workers.

One of the most high-profile cases involves Cynthia Wilson, an African-American recreation manager. According to a lawsuit filed last year, park administrators fired her in January 2011 in response to allegations that she failed to properly supervise an employee. Wilson appealed that decision to a civil-service board and was later rehired.

After she returned to work in July 2011, the lawsuit said, "she again became the target of baseless investigations and disparate treatment," including comments about poor attitude.

Neither Wilson nor park board administrators would discuss her case, citing the ongoing litigation.

A couple of years ago, the Minneapolis NAACP received more than 160 complaints from park board employees and park patrons alleging racial discrimination.

Former NAACP president Booker Hodges, who investigated the complaints, recalls how Miller made herself available to talk to employees who felt they had been wrongly disciplined, and reversed decisions where needed. Hodges said it stood in contrast to the adversarial approach he expected from a city leader.

"Her response was surprising, actually," Hodges said. "They admitted they had institutional racism issues that were rampant in the organization, and they were willing to address it."

Hodges said out of the 160 complaints, all but about 20 were resolved.

Cordell Wiseman
Cordell "Corky" Wiseman, director of community outreach for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said he and other leaders must do a better job of listening to concerns from employees about heavy-handed management and constant restructuring.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

One high-level park board employee who had to carry out some of the discipline in recent years was Cordell "Corky" Wiseman, a former assistant superintendent for recreation.

Wiseman, an African-American who has worked for the park board for more than two decades, said he increasingly feels caught in the middle.

"It's very difficult for me, as a person of color, and anyone else in the leadership role to be in a position under the environment that's there now," he said.

On one hand, Wiseman said, he understands why management fired several employees of color and believes the treatment was largely justified. On the other hand, he's critical of administrators who want to entirely dismiss the unfolding discontent.

He counts himself as one of many workers who are afraid of challenging Superintendent Miller.

Wiseman said his current position — director of community outreach — came after Miller demoted him from assistant superintendent. He recently lodged a workplace complaint against her and has asked a neutral party to help mediate their differences.

"I am frustrated, very frustrated, and I feel like I don't know what to do," Wiseman said. "But it's not about holding onto my job anymore."

Wiseman said he shares some of the blame for the leadership problems for not pushing back against some of the changes, or not explaining to park personnel why other changes were needed.

He said Miller has some wonderful ideas, but her aggressive style needs to be examined in light of concerns from rank-and-file employees.

"If I don't feel comfortable, there's a legitimate reason why they don't feel comfortable," he said.

Miller has heard that criticism about her style before, and she doesn't buy it. She said many of the changes on workplace efficiency were driven by staff suggestions.

However, Miller concedes that she's demanding, and that can put off people who have worked at the park board for most of their careers.

"It probably seems I'm aggressive, but I don't believe I'm aggressive. I believe I'm assertive," Miller said. "I have high expectations. But we're the No. 1 park system in this country, and in order to be the No. 1 park system and be proud of that, we also have to operate as if we're the No. 1 park system in the country."

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