2021 Minneapolis Park Board Housing Questionnaire

A coalition of local organizations sponsored this questionnaire to help voters understand where each candidate stands on issues that shape whether every person can find and afford a home in Minneapolis.

We collectively submitted, refined, and selected these questions and invited campaigns of all candidates to respond. We will continue to accept responses and thank those who have participated. Their responses are published verbatim.

The only party holding caucuses for Minneapolis races is the DFL. For more information about participating in the Minneapolis DFL Caucuses in April, see minneapolisdfl.org/. For information on the 2021 November elections, see https://vote.minneapolismn.gov/voters/calendar/.

Sponsors: Envision Community; IX (Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia); Neighbors for More Neighbors; NRRC; Wedge LIVE!; Zacah 

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Candidate responses: 

  • Billy Menz – District 1:  responded
  • Kale Severson – District 2: no response
  • Mohamoud Hassan – District 3: no response
  • Jono Cowgill – District 4:  responded
  • Steffanie Musich – District 5:  responded
  • Cathy Abene – District 6:  responded
  • Londel French – At Large: no response
  • Alicia D. Smith – At Large:  responded
  • Meg Forney – At Large:  responded

Q1:Do you believe the Park Board has a responsibility to promote the stability of and support the services provided at encampments?

Billy Menz – District 1: MPRB has a responsibility to keep their parks safe and accessible to all of its citizens, but we do not have the responsibility to maintain spaces for unhoused citizens. However, that does not mean that we should not permit those activities to take place if there is no other viable option for the individual. I think the encampments in our parks represent a larger social issue that cannot be adequately addressed by park staff without a significant amount of training and/or reallocation of work duties. MPRB should always be willing to respond to crisis and lead with empathy for our citizens need our spaces in times of need. Park land is their space too, but I do not believe that as a park board we can begin to tackle the complexities that homelessness entails. We must be a part of collaborative solutions, but we must be sure to work within the capacity of not only our land space but also our staff capability.

Jono Cowgill – District 4: The Park Board has a responsibility to be part of region-wide efforts to end homelessness. The Park Board’s role may take a variety of forms. Last year, in the face of an unprecedented rise in the unhoused population, a pandemic, and civil unrest, the Park Board met the need of unhoused neighbors with direct supports for encampments, providing the first permitted encampment spaces on MPRB land since the late 1940s. Moving forward, the Board has directed staff to develop an updated Unsheltered People’s Policy, which will set stringent guidelines for how park staff liaison with our unhoused park users to ensure all people are treated with dignity and aligned with the supports they need to succeed. Based upon my conversations with unhoused people, I know that encampments are not a long-term solution for the unhoused and that all people should have dignified housing. I believe that the Park Board should be an active parter with the City, County and State in realizing the goal of dignified, affordable housing for all.

Steffanie Musich – District 5: I support Resolution 2021-122 regarding encampments, that was adopted by the board of commissioners. You can read the entirety of that resolution here: http://minneapolisparksmn.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=2186&MediaPosition=&ID=5337&CssClass=

Cathy Abene – District 6: I agree with much of the recently adopted Park Board Resolution 2021-22, particularly where the resolution identifies a role for MPRB in working with the public partners that are resourced to serve people experiencing homelessness: “MPRB staff will maintain up-to-date knowledge of shelter opportunities though their contact with the County and other partners; and provide reasonable notification and assistance to unsheltered persons seeking alternative forms of shelter.”

Alicia D. Smith – At Large: I believe that the park board has a responsibility to ensure that parks are welcoming to all. When we find these encampments in our parks the park board should partner with the experts and community to support the people living in the encampments.

Meg Forney – At Large: I affirm MPRB’s Resolution 2021-122 pertaining to encampments: MPRB recognizes that sheltering individuals experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis parks is not a safe, proper, or dignified form of housing and is, at best, a temporary solution for encamped individuals. Adhering to encampment response protocols developed in concert with other agencies and applicable to Executive Orders of the State of Minnesota, MPRB calls on other agencies to increase funding to address the homeless crisis. To assist unsheltered individuals in Minneapolis parks, MPRB recognizes its limited capacity to address issues related to unsheltered populations and the greater and essential capacity of other governmental entities to accommodate the needs of those populations. The MInneapolis Park and Recreation Board of Commissioners and staff will provide assistance to the State of Minnesota, Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, and other local partners to aid the unsheltered should a need be identified by those agencies; it will develop and maintain an Unsheltered People Policy that ensures people experiencing homelessness are treated by park staff with dignity and respect. MPRB requests a collaborative and coordinated plan for how encampments will be addressed on public land, and enter into formal agreements when MPRB resources are needed. MPRB supports the State of Minnesota, Hennepin County, and the City of Minneapolis to continue pursuit of expanded opportunities for permanent shelter for the unsheltered homeless population.

Q2: Do you support having the same or similar park resources in every neighborhood park? For example, the splash pools.

Billy Menz – District 1: No I do not. I think that MPRB has maintained that all parks can do all things and this is an unrealistic option for our neighborhood parks. I also see this with athletics and programming resources at parks. It is not necessary for every park to offer every sport and when we allow people to register with that presumption we damage trust with our constituents. We need to be realistic with our citizens and some parks are going to have different amenities or focus areas. I think that when we try to make everything “equal” we miss the mark in trying to make our park system equitable. I will fight hard for park equity not only in my district but system wide.

Jono Cowgill – District 4: I support the equitable allocation of both capital and programming resources to our neighborhood parks. This means using metrics including concentrations of poverty, populations of black, indigenous and people of color, differently abled populations, transit dependent populations, and areas of historical disinvestment to inform park resource investments. It also means listening to and working closely with community to understand shifting needs and priorities to adequately invest in ways that fully benefit those communities. Ensuring, for example, that Franklin Steele Park has a wading pool just because Kenny Park also has a wading pool does not necessarily serve the needs of the neighborhood. Rather, the park board should continually strive to connect more deeply with community members to understand how we can match resources with community needs. The board’s equity framework for investments is a start; it needs to be constantly reevaluated and challenged to ensure our community works towards more just public space investments.

Steffanie Musich – District 5: One of the goals of service area master planning was to provide balanced amenities across the service areas for as many recreational uses as possible while meeting the unique needs of the neighborhoods in which the parks are situated. As our climate continues to change, projects that help with adaptation and increase access to cooling on hot days should be prioritized in parks that currently lack those features.

Cathy Abene – District 6: Each park has unique characteristics and surroundings, and one size doesn’t fit all. On the Park Board I would listen to the advice of the arborists, landscape architects, and recreation experts to maximize each park’s potential. I would listen to the elders and children of the park community to understand the history of the park and to generate ideas for its future. Will that result in splash pools across the city? I don’t know. Maybe. And depending on the community meeting, I could see myself saying yes to a bunch of two-year-olds. They’re so darn cute.

Alicia D. Smith – At Large: I support every park having similar resource based on the culture and traditions of the neighborhood.

Meg Forney – At Large: MPRB divided the city into different geographical areas for recreation services. Each service area applies resources to best meet the programming and service needs of the community it serves. All of these Recreation Service Areas, as of 2020, have been master planned via robust community engagement incorporating each community’s long term vision. These plans will guide development of Minneapolis neighborhood parks for the next 20-30 years. Minneapolis has a long tradition of planning, designing and redesigning its parks across the MPRB’s 133-year history. Several years ago the MPRB recognized it needed to rethink neighborhood parks and set a vision for remaking them in the image of the communities that surround them. These master plans will also allow the MPRB to leverage additional financial resources by inspiring and then directing outside philanthropy and grant funding. This vision will – like the parks themselvs – bring communities together to imagine and then build the future of Minneapolis’s neighborhood parks. Ultimately, these plans ensure the MPRB uses its increased funding on things that are important to the people who use neighborhood parks. Some communities have requested splash pads, others have not. The community of Victory Park supports a splash pad, whereas, Linden Hills’ community supports their wading pool for updates. Therefore, our neighborhood parks reflect what each community needs and desires. In the ’60s and ’70s, when more recreation centers were built, they were “cookie cutter” — reflective of a Euro-Centric culture. Today’s Minneapolis population is far more diverse and each park, via these master plans, will reflect each individual community’s vision.

Q3: Encampments of unhoused people have become common on public land in Minneapolis in recent years. What will you do to protect the people who see encampments as their best housing option, to connect them to a safe and stable permanent home?

Billy Menz – District 1: Twenty years ago I worked for the homeless in Austin, TX and I personally knew homeless individuals who were not comfortable being housed. They had lived on the streets for so long that they were not interested in the confinements that getting housing presented. I did not see a problem with their choice, but the law did. I think we need to forge stronger partnerships with our social services community and ensure that people who are caught camping on park land are not criminalized. We cannot criminalize homelessness and as park commissioner I will make sure that our parks do not present additional barriers to housing for encampment residents. Additionally, we must ensure that our park directors receive adequate training on how to approach and manage unhoused people and what resources they can access to ensure people get the services they need. This cannot be the park director’s primary job, but we can’t avoid the reality that encampments will continue to pop up. As a commissioner, I will work with City Council, the County and the State to find common sense solutions that support the dignity of people, the safety of park goers and the de-criminalization of homelessnss.

Jono Cowgill – District 4: As a former cooperative housing organizer and direct service provider, I know that it is critical to center solutions with the people they affect. That means I will continue to reach out to and have conversations with the unhoused to understand their needs. I will center policy solutions that ensures park staff are having direct, humane conversations with people in our parks to understand their needs and get the what they need. During my time as commissioner I have fought to deepen the Park Board’s role in working with the unhoused who use the parks and bring MPRB’s role out of the shadows. Where in the past the unhoused were most likely to interact with armed park police, I have championed the creation of a new Community Support Services department which provides direct, non-law enforcement outreach to our unhoused neighbors. These professionals are well-versed in local available support services and are able to quickly provide the connections needed to ensure the unhoused access the dignified services they need. Moving forward, I will build on my relationships with local and regional government to address the needs of the unhoused in Minneapolis parks. Housing insecurity and homelessness is a regional problem that requires a regional solution. In the meantime, I will build on recent policy improvements to ensure all unhoused people in Minneapolis parks are able to access the services they need, and to advocate for better services, including harm-reduction shelters, deeply affordable housing, and wraparound addiction, employment, family services supports.

Steffanie Musich – District 5: I support Resolution 2021-122 regarding encampments, that was adopted by the board of commissioners and will continue to advocate for an expansion of temporary shelter options to meet the needs of our unhoused neighbors.

Cathy Abene – District 6: Elected to the Park Board or not, I will continue to add my voice to the call for dramatic changes in the way we support people experiencing homelessness. And if elected I will fight to ensure that care of the houseless population in this city is not a political hot potato, landing in the hands of the group least equipped to handle it: the Park Board.

The Minneapolis Park Board is designed to oversee parkland and recreation programs; it fundamentally lacks the training and bandwidth to support these terribly complex situations.

The true cause of this crisis is the failure of city, county, and state departments that are tasked with doing the hard work of helping houseless people.

I believe in something called “the Commons;” the idea that publicly held systems, lands, and values are GOOD. I believe in public health care and public housing, two things that would work wonders to improve the lives of the unhoused. It is frustrating to have to even talk about this during a campaign that should be celebrating public parks.

Those of us who are committed to living in ungated, urban places need to find a way to connect with the values of people who may not be our neighbors, but who share the belief that we do better when we all do better.

Alicia D. Smith – At Large: I would partner with experts to provide support and resources to work in partnership with the community members who are finding their place of refuge in the encampments.

Meg Forney – At Large: During 2020, I was involved directly with two encampments to advocate for dignified and safe housing. Under the direction of the encampment permit holder Michelle Smith and with a citizen group (that I was on board with) that emerged called ProjectBacktoHome.org (reference: (https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/homelessness-in-minneapolis/), Lake Harriet’s 18 encampment residents were placed in dignified housing with person-specific resources for their path to mental and emotional health, sobriety, employment and job training, and stability. The guidance of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, St. Stephens, Salvation Army, AICDC and other private and public partners is critical to address the over 60,000 units needed to end homelessness.

With five deaths, overdoses, countless sexual trafficking and assaults including a raped 14 year old girl, robberies and shootings, and active use of drugs in 45 different parks with over 730 tents in 2020, MPRB’s limited capacity to address issues related to unsheltered populations necessitates the greater and essential capacity of the State of Minnesota, Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, and other governmental entities to accommodate the needs of those populations. In 2020, MPRB worked with partner agencies at all levels of government and private sector organizations and provided reasonable notice of disbandment of an encampment, distributed to encamped individuals information related to alternatives to sheltering in a park, took actions to disband encampments and assisted those persons in finding suitable shelter, and restored encampment areas to a suitable parkland condition.

Q4: How can the park board improve connections to pocket parks?

Billy Menz – District 1: none

Jono Cowgill – District 4: Since I first arrived on the Park Board in 2018 I have been saying we as a community need a Safe Routes to Parks plan that identifies gaps in safe crossings to our neighborhood and pocket parks and outlines clear infrastructure and programming actions to address the deficiencies. This will require close collaboration with the City of Minneapolis to implement. This Safe Routes to Parks approach is included in the draft 2021 MPRB Comprehensive Plan and I will fight to ensure it is maintained in the plan, strengthened and implemented. We also need to implement some of the improvements outlined in recently-passed park master plans, which include pocket park improvements that will help make them more engaging, dynamic, and well-used spaces.

Steffanie Musich – District 5: All park board master plans call for enhancing the connections between parks with additional wayfinding and trail connections where practical, implementation is done as funding is available.

Cathy Abene – District 6: Removing barriers to access to all MPRB parks is important work that should continue. The Park Board should have a comprehensive, city-wide access and connection improvement plan that is coordinated with the City and the County six-year CIPs. This will give the Park Board the lead time to seek funding and to coordinate their own improvements. Looking for coordination opportunities among public agencies saves public money and more effectively achieves outcomes that are important to the community, but it doesn’t happen as routinely as it should.

Alicia D. Smith – At Large: The park board could have some subset of staff committed to supporting pop up activity at these parks.

Meg Forney – At Large: MPRB has been actively creating strategic connections where there are gaps in access. During my seven year tenure on the board, MPRB has added over 20 acres to the system, all critical for improved accessibility, and most actively in underserved areas. Many more new connections have been added to the system via easements like the Woonerf from downtown to the Mississippi and the Graco pedestrian and bike trail adjacent to the Mississippi. Small but focused connections have been added at the CEPRO parcel along the Midtown Greenway, the 26th Avenue Greenway with the newly funded Overlook, Towerside Park, and the North Loop connection. Many more critical connections are on the horizon at the Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment and the Bassett Creek Valley redevelopment, both areas with major physical barriers. Downtown park connections and the Missing Link of the Grand Rounds are perhaps our biggest challenge for equitable access.

As I indicated in this questionnaire, our recreation service area master planning focused on key connections to pocket parks as well as neighborhood recreation centers and regional parks. According to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore®, “98% of residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park.” Accessibility is critical to a viable park system and health and well-being of all, particularly as our city grows and diversifies.

Q5: What information can potentially be given on a monthly basis to help community members to stay connected to the green space and have equitable access to park board resources?

Billy Menz – District 1: I know that as Park Commissioner I will create a monthly report to help keep my district informed, but I think we can do more as a system to connect people to things happening in their local parks. Communication is challenging and we must continue to work on how we can help support other languages, oral options and social media presence. There are a lot of great things happening in the parks and we need to work to continuously revise and improve our communication.

Jono Cowgill – District 4: There are a wealth of programs and activities occurring in Minneapolis parks all the time (even in winter and even during the pandemic). While the Board’s weekly GovDelivery update emails are a starting place, the Board must be better at strengthening partnerships with trusted community voices to better get the word out about park board events, resources, jobs, and other opportunities. Some ways to improve the Board’s outreach include:

  • Direct advertisement in news sources like Insight News and the Sahan Journal.
  • Hiring community connectors to be trusted liaisons with less-connected groups like the Hmong community, Latinx community, the elderly and differently abled communities, and others to ensure people understand the resources available and feel safe and welcome in accessing those resources.
  • Ensuring park staff look like the communities they serve.

Steffanie Musich – District 5: The park board communications department provides suggestions for ways to get engaged in programming or to explore the park system on social media channels and via topic specific emails that residents can subscribe to. Additionally, park signage is updated with program information and printed activity guides are available in recreation and community centers. Events are advertised on the radio and in community newspapers. I provide information about upcoming events and programs in my newsletter. This newsletter is linked to my commissioner page on the park board website and sent out to subscribers on a monthly basis. Newsletter: https://us8.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=f9cc20f82f122b4964a2042e8&id=8decf96dea

Cathy Abene – District 6: I am open to ideas from the community as to how best to disseminate information about park board offerings and opportunities. If I had an unlimited budget I would like to:

  • Solicit community ideas for athletic and after-school programming
  • Suggestions for ways to connect with fresh air, nature, and unstructured play
  • Spotlight interesting parks to inspire neighbors to visit from other parts of our city
  • Write the information in the major languages of our district and work to ensure these readers receive it (partner with social service organizations, etc)
  • Recruit in these same communities when staff positions at MPRB are available
  • And more, I hope!

Alicia D. Smith – At Large: There can be use of social media for short information videos which link people back to the website where you may find full information regarding resources. We may also create flyers or newspapers.

Meg Forney – At Large: Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board offers updates on a variety of topics, news updates in general and by district, board meetings, things to do, places to go, planning and other board projects, parkway closures and golf course improvements. The best way is to sign up via this link: https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/MNPARKREC/subscriber/topics

Q6: If there are any other thoughts you’d like to add, please use this space to do so.

Billy Menz – District 1: Thank you for the opportunity to share. Please email Billy at menz4parkboard@gmail.com

Jono Cowgill – District 4: I want to thank Envision Community, Inquilinxs Unidxs, Neighbors for More Neighbors, NRRC, Wedge Live, and Zacah for developing this questionnaire and for your commitment to our city.

Steffanie Musich – District 5: none

Cathy Abene – District 6: Thank you for the opportunity to answer your thoughtful questions.

Alicia D. Smith – At Large: none

Meg Forney – At Large: I am passionate about our Park System and honored to steward its 137 year legacy. I am an active user of our Park system and an active attendee of our many Park community engagement efforts. I will lead on four action items: Equitable Access, Climate and Environmental Resiliency, Youth and Senior Programming, Financial Sustainability. These action items are anchored in the course I have charted to date. Parks raise everyone’s boat. Minneapolis has consistently been awarded the #1 Parks by the Trust for Public Lands. This award is largely due to our forbearers, and it is up to all of us to responsibly steward that legacy. If reelected, I will continue to work to protect and enhance the system for current residents and families and for future generations.

I am proud of the accomplishments of my first two terms.

With the City of Minneapolis, we collaboratively brought millions of capital dollars to address our neighborhood parks’ neglect, utilizing a first-ever racial-equity matrix in determining where the funding should be prioritized over 20 years. I was one of the lead Commissioners in advocating for this initiative.

We added more strategic parkland to our Park System as our population grew and targeted that land to gaps in underserved areas—in particular along the banks of our Mississippi River in North and Northeast Minneapolis.

We have master planned the entire city’s park system to set a vision for long-term development and improvements. These plans guide not only each park, but also put forth improvements for our Ecological System, our Urban Agriculture Activity, and our Recreational Activities..

Still, our park system faces serious challenges and there is much more work to be done. Now more than ever, I believe we need to work to promote equitable park access for all families, to support climate initiatives, and to invest in programs for our city’s youth and seniors. Moreover, we need to pursue these goals in a financially sustainable manner that leaves a positive legacy for future generations.