Mpls park board, along with City, addresses inequities

Park board retiree says his former coworkers are running scared

 

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

 

A former Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) employee earlier this year emailed all nine park board commissioners, expressing concern about workplace conditions. The MSR received  a copy of the five-page email sent in April titled “Racism issues concerns at the MPRB,” which made reference to the January 2012 investigation report in which top MPRB officials and the commissioners “agreed to address the concerns on the disparities and racism issues, and not to use fear or retaliation [against employees].”

“The work culture has not changed since 2012,” wrote the former MPRB employee, who later spoke on the condition that their name would not be published.

The park board workplace can be characterized as an environment of paranoia, and employees are “working in tremendous fear,” while some are scared to talk on fear of retaliation, added Bob Ramphal, a former MPRB recreation center director who retired earlier this year after 46 years and spoke to park board commissioners in April.

 Jayne Miller Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.
Jayne Miller
Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.

He recently talked to the MSR and said that he regularly stays in contact with his former colleagues. “Sometimes the employees felt like that they couldn’t trust anyone,” he said. “I felt that many of my colleagues [were] very depressed or very down in spirit, and very discouraged, and didn’t know what the future [holds]. They were afraid of what the department is doing. They are all running scared. It is very toxic — it has not changed for the better.”

“Anybody that dedicates 40 years of their career to an organization that they love, and gives us fair criticism at the end of his career, I think we have the obligation to listen,” said Sixth District Commissioner Brad Bourn of Ramphal.

“I decided to speak up [as a retiree] because if you speak as an employee to your supervisors or the powers that be, there’s the possible retaliation on the job,” said Ramphal. “I left on a good note, but I never [saw] it that bad. I felt sorry for my colleagues because they are not in the same position as I was, being able to retire.”

Nokomis Park Director Maggie Mercil, a 22-year park board employee, said, “People have been at the park board for a long time. I’ve never seen [it] like this,” adding that she witnessed first-hand how some employees have been humiliated or intimidated during meetings by supervisors or higher-ups for, as she puts it, simply asking a question. She said that MPRB employees, regardless of ethnicity, are afraid to speak out because of possible reprisals, especially at monthly “open meetings” conducted by MPRB Superintendent Jayne Miller.

“The issue is morale. There’s no trust between management and staff,” added “Barbara,” a Black employee (real name withheld by request).

“I feel we are treated like crap [by management],” noted a 20-year MPRB employee, who didn’t want their name published. Both employees expressed fear of their supervisors finding out. The individuals ranked their concerns in no particular order:

• Currently working without a contract with the park board

• Higher-ups not valuing them as employees

• Hiring out-of-state consultants

The MSR last week contacted Miller for comment on the expressed concerns by Mercil, Ramphal and others. First of all, Miller says, recreation might be the biggest source of frustration. “I know that I am holding employees more accountable than they used to be. I know that also can be very difficult.”

The 20-year MPRB employee complained that the park board “has become too top heavy” while cutting budgets, but still hiring six-figure out-of-state consultants on reorganization projects. “Morale is really bad,” added the employee. Under Miller’s leadership, MPRB has a smaller work force — nearly 500 full-time and 1,700 temporary or seasonal workers.

“Do I believe that morale is where it should be? Probably not,” Miller said. “If people are unhappy at work, that concerns me. But I also can’t jump on the bandwagon because one or two people say ‘this is what is going on at the park board,’ when it’s two people out of 2,000 people.”

She was not at the April meeting where Ramphal spoke, “But I heard from a number of other people in the organization” who don’t feel that same way as the retiree, noted Miller. “I believe there are people who feel the way Bob feels, but I also heard from a lot of people who are really displeased with what he said. That is not how they feel.”

“I feel like I’m dammed if I do, and damned if I don’t,” said Miller. “If I don’t hold open meetings, then they say I am not open to hearing from employees. People who come to the open forums ask me a whole bunch of different kinds of questions.”

“No matter how many meetings she [Miller] have had with employees, they cannot tell her what’s on their minds because if they tell them, they are afraid that it will come back to haunt them in their evaluations. They [employees] still are working under fear,” reported Ramphal.

Rather than speaking to the media, “I do also think there is a burden of responsibility on all of us as adults in this organization that if they have concerns about their supervisor, their work environment, for them to talk to their supervisor,” stated Miller. “If employees aren’t raising those issues within the organization, how fair is that to that supervisor, or to me, or to anyone else in this organization to be able to address them and deal with them.”

Human Relations Director Pam French says hopefully a climate and culture survey soon will be ready to distribute to all MPRB employees this fall to “give a broad view” of the organization at present.

Bourn questioned if the problem lies with “disgruntled” former or current employees, “or are we tone deaf” to their concerns. He added that Miller shouldn’t shoulder most of the task to change things at MPRB.

“She is a wonderful superintendent, one of the best the park board ever had. I think a lot of failures that are happening now are a responsibility of the Board of Commissioners, and I [am] included.

“The superintendent has as much authority to resolve those things as the board gets,” he continued. “The board has given a hands-off directive — don’t want to be involved in staff issues. I think the board needs to be more involved, and the accountability lies with us and not with the superintendent.”

“My concern is that this is a great organization but we still are having these [communication] issues,” said Mercil.

“If you worked here for a long time, you have certain patterns of behaviors,” said Miller.  “When [change] is hard on individual people, then you multiply that by the number of employees in the organization, it is just hard.

“I am not saying that employees are not willing to embrace change,” Miller said. “Employees probably misunderstood my comment that they don’t like change. Change is hard on anyone, and the magnitude of change that we have done in this organization is very, very difficult. Whether you like it or not, change is hard.

“The reason I’m here is to provide all of the citizens of Minneapolis the opportunity to experience park services, just like everybody else would, to the best of my ability. Communication and transparency, as well as honesty, is important to me.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.