The chairman of a group advising park officials on renovations at lakes Harriet and Calhoun has abruptly resigned from his leadership position, saying the group is too focused on renaming Lake Calhoun.
Peter Bell, the former Metropolitan Council chairman, chided the board for not spending enough time on what he said is its core mission: setting priorities for $3.7 million in spending to renovate park facilities at the lakes.
“I think that’s what the public is focused on,” Bell said at a meeting.
Bell made the announcement after committee members voted to see where they stand on the name change issue, even though the panel has no authority in the decision. Fourteen members said they favor changing Calhoun to the Dakota name of Bde Maka Ska, which means White Earth Lake. Three favored keeping the current name, including Bell; four expressed no preference.
The board’s position is expected be reflected in a committee report to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on how members want to use the renovation funding.
Bell said the panel deserves a leader more aligned with its views on cultural issues such as the name change. He said the time given to the naming issue “has sucked the air out of the room.”
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board already voted in September to add the Bde Maka Ska name to signs at the lake.
Advocates have tried for years to rename the lake named after John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president and secretary of war from South Carolina who was a strong advocate for slavery. The issue resurfaced in the form of a new petition drive after an attack in a historic Charleston, S.C., church killed nine people.
Carly Bad Heart Bull, one Dakota member of the committee, called the Park Board’s decision to add the Dakota name “a nice thing but it doesn’t really address the issue.”
The Park Board does not have the authority to rename the lake, although it could lend its voice to a legislative effort to authorize the name change. The normal channel for changing a lake name involves a petition to the County Board, a public hearing and then a decision by the commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources. Or the commissioner has the power to act in cases where there are competing names for a lake.
Bell, who lives on Lake Calhoun, said that lake users are more interested in issues involving parking, congestion, the condition of lake paths and water quality than the name issue. He spoke as a subcommittee reported on its work to date in trying to make the lakes area more welcoming to communities of color.
For example, it suggested that signs at the park could also be printed in the languages of major ethnic groups that have migrated to the city.
“I am extremely concerned about the time commitment we are giving to these issues now,” Bell said. The subcommittee was allotted 45 minutes on a committee agenda Monday, but the discussion lasted almost an hour. That was in part because Bell sought to dissuade the group from taking a stance on the naming issue for now.
Park Board President Liz Wielinski said she’ll name a new leader from within the group, and add a new member if Bell resigns from the panel. He said he hasn’t decided whether to remain a member.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t know that this was simmering under the surface,” Wielinski said.
The Park Board itself directed the committee to include diverse perspectives in its recommendations, address historic and contemporary cultural concerns, and focus on equity.
Although Bell criticized the group for not focusing on capital issues, park staff and consultants have yet to make specific recommendations with cost figures for alternatives for addressing lake issues.
The group is scheduled to discuss preliminary concepts at its next meeting Sept. 29.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438