MPRB, BET independence is key

Minneapolitans will vote on park and finance boards, and on amendment to government structure.

Municipal boards In addition to the mayor and City Council races, Tuesday voters will elect members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and the Board of Estimates and Taxation (BET). These are separate entities within the city, and they wield significant power to affect citizensâÄô quality of life and level of taxation. Minneapolis is blessed with one of the nationâÄôs premiere urban park systems. The 6,400 acres of parkland, 200,000 boulevard trees and 43 miles of Grand Rounds bike paths have been maintained well by the MPRB in the past. The independent, nine-member board (six from geographically-based districts and three at-large) sets park policy, funding and oversees the Park Police. Overall, the Board levies about 18 percent of total property taxes on the city and directs a budget of $55 million. University-area neighborhoods on the East Bank are in MPRB District 1; the West Bank is in MPRB District 3. Healthy competition brings eight candidates vying for the three at-large seats. Voters will rank their top-three choices to serve at-large rather than ranking for each of the three seats. The BET is responsible for setting property-tax limits, authorizing city borrowing and auditing financial processes. It is comprised of two at-large members elected by the public, two members of the City Council, the mayor and a representative of the MPRB. In setting the maximum tax levy, they create the framework for the other jurisdictionsâÄô spending decisions. Essentially, the BET provides a mechanism to force the City Council and MPRB to work together. The two independent members serve as non-biased referees when the council, the mayor and the Park Board cannot unanimously agree. The MPRB and the BET constitute a power balance with the City Council, and voters should educate themselves on appropriate candidates. Self-reported biographical and policy information from candidates can be found at the Minnesota League of Women Voters Web site, City charter amendment The ballot will include a vote on an amendment to the Minneapolis City Charter to replace the current membership of the Board of Estimates and Taxation with members of the City Council and to change the relationship between the Park Board and the council. Advocates argue that the charter amendment streamlines decision-making and increases accountability due to the obscurity of the BET. However, the independence of the BET and the checks and balances that the decentralized power structure represent remain crucial to the city. The measure, if adopted, maintains the responsibility for parks with the MPRB, but all tax funding would come from the City Council, so that if the two entities were to disagree, the council could threaten to reduce MPRB funding to compel it to submit âÄî a back-door route to eliminate the independence of the MPRB. Though there may be merits to such an arrangement, the decision should not be made without an explicit charter vote to legitimize it. Good government doesnâÄôt create itself. The BET provides a valuable venue for forcing elected officials to justify their spending. The BETâÄôs audit function should not be put under the charge of the council itself; self-audits are not a hallmark of transparency. Furthermore, the cost of this decentralized municipal power structure is low: $35 per month for the two elected members or $840 annually. Any efforts to reform city government and streamline operations should be done comprehensively and transparently, rather than piecemeal and inexplicitly.