Minneapolis Park Board accused of cronyism

- The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB) is receiving criticism from present and past commissioners after the Interim Superintendent approved a paid consultant, without a public vote, who has strong connections to the Board’s President.

Former Park Board Commissioner Scott Vreeland, who resigned last year after 12 years on the Park Board, said it is a symptom of a Park Board that has become increasingly political and divisive after the 2017 election.   

“Left wasn’t good enough. This was more ideological,” said Vreeland. “This development of who you know is more important than how you do your job.”

JOB GOES TO FRIEND WITH CONNECTIONS

Last April, the Park Board created a new position of an Intergovernmental Lobbyist to work with City Hall, the School District, the Hennepin County Board, and other government entities who work or partner with the Park Board.  

The job went to a well-known DFL political operative, Kendal Killian. 

Killian is a friend of Park Board President, Brad Bourn. The two posted pictures on Facebook showing them boating on Lake Bde Maka Ska and out on the campaign trail.

Killian has given $600 in total to Bourne’s two Park Board campaigns in 2013 and 2017.  He is also listed as a co-host for a Bourn fundraiser. 

Campaign finance records for Bourn in 2017 also list Killian as a “consultant?” followed by a question mark.  It shows he was paid $750. 

Bourn’s campaign manager, Cynthia Callanan, told Fox 9 in an email that was an error, that Killian was not a paid consultant, and she mistakenly wrote the check to Killian. 

Callanan wrote that the money was intended for the DFL Coordinated Campaign.  Killian was one of the Coordinated Campaign’s co-chairs.  Documents and text messages provided by Callanan appear to show the money eventually went to the DFL.  

The DFL Coordinated Campaign supported a slate of Park Board candidates in 2017.  Five of those new Park Board members voted in January to make Bourn President of the Park Board.

“The idea that the Park Board President needed an intergovernmental relations person who could schmooze with other DFL’ers, since this is a DFL town, seemed a little over the top to me. For a position that pays really well that also looks like payback for the person who got the majority of the Board elected,” said Vreeland.

Under the consulting contract, Killian is paid $9,500 a month, or $114,000 a year. 

CONTRACT BYPASSES BOARD

The contract was broken up into two, six-month terms.  Keeping it under $100,000 meant it never went before the Park Board Commissioners for a vote and was never part of a public hearing. 

The contract was renewable for up to five years, meaning a potential commitment of up to $570,000.

“Something about it doesn’t seem above board. For it not to come before us,” said Steffanie Musich, a Park Board Commissioner in her second term. 

“The optics of creating a job without much input from the Board and then awarding it to Mr. Killian is really bad.  It does not look transparent,” said Musich.

At a recent Park Board meeting, the Fox 9 Investigators asked President Bourn if he was involved in the consulting contract. He replied, “No, you’ll want to talk to the Superintendent.”

Killian was one of only three candidates for the six figure-consulting job.

“It wasn’t based on the President of the Board telling me you have to hire someone,” said Interim Park Board President Mary Merrill. 

She said the contract was split into two to give the next Park Board Superintendent flexibility. She said Killian was the most qualified, in her opinion.

“I know that having 15 years’ experience working with a number of campaigns, I saw that as a plus, I saw that as a plus in terms of someone who had experience working in the political realm. He knew lots of people.”

His resume in politics is not in doubt.  Killian is a former senior policy aide to Minneapolis Council Member, Linea Palmisano, and a former Campaign Manager for Congressman Rick Nolan.

Killian also came with letters of recommendation from Mayor Jacob Frey, Hennepin County Commissioner, Marian Greene, and School Board Chair Nelson Inz. 

“Because this is a DFL city people get to know each other and help each other and they contribute with each other’s campaigns,” added Merrill.

“PEOPLE ARE ASKING QUESTIONS”

After the FOX 9 Investigators began looking into the matter, some Park Board Members started raising concerns. It became evident at the Park Board’s October 4 meeting. 

“People are asking questions, so I’m asking questions,” Commissioner Meg Forney told her fellow Commissioners.

Commissioner, Musich asked: “How many lobbying contracts has this Board engaged in without a Board vote?”

President Bourn replied:  “I think superintendent Merrill will have to go through the 150-year history of the Park Board and bring it to you another time.”

Commissioners have also questioned Killian’s monthly invoices, which under the contract must be “itemized invoices for services rendered.” Yet, all the invoices simply read, “intergovernmental consulting.”

Killian declined to be interviewed for this story, but spoke briefly when he was finally formally introduced to the Board on October 4th. He had been on the job since June.  

“And just last week we were successful in getting our levy approved through the Board of Taxation, actually a high levy, more than what the Mayor proposed,” Killian told the Board.

“There is political patronage in this city but it’s never been part of the Park Board system or process,” commented Vreeland.

He added the job of lobbying has traditionally fallen to Commissioners and the Superintendent.  But some of the newly elected members have been surprised by the work load for a part time job, that pays a stipend of only $12,438.

“I find it hard to believe he’s been hired to serve the needs of everyone on this Board,” said Musich.

The Park Board has other paid contract consultants who lobby the legislature and federal government, while getting paid considerably less.   The MPRB has a contract with the firm Lockridge Grindal for $45,000 as a federal lobbyist.  Lobbying the legislature is left to Mary Ann Campo ($45,000) and Tom Workman ($25,000).

At a time of tight budgets, when cutting staff, hours and even planting fewer trees is under consideration, Commissioner Musich wonders if one of the best park systems in the country really needs another lobbyist.

“That’s not something we needed to pay someone to do for us.  And I don’t know why the new Board should be any different. We are capable of communicating our mission and goals of our organization.  That’s how we got elected,” she concluded.

Fox 9 talked with one of the other candidates for the consulting job. He said it was “wired from the start”. After he applied for the job, several people within MPRB told him it was going to Killian because that is who Bourn wanted in the position.

Yesterday, the Park Board told Fox 9 the Interim Superintendent now plans to make the consulting contract a full-time position in the 2019 budget. Killian will have to re-apply for the job.

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