Opinion: Controversy seems to follow Sparks; the question is why

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Last week Paul Sparks, Albert Lea City Manager, was on the front page of the newspaper again &045; twice. Sometimes it seems like controversy is drawn to him like moths to a flame.

Does Mr. Sparks enjoy his time in the &uot;spitelight,&uot; or does he dread getting the newspaper each day, for fear his face will be above the fold on page one? He must have a thick skin, to carry on in a normal way when so many people say so many uncomplimentary things about him. Not that he’s completely isolated &045; he has some supporters in this community, as well. They call Mr. Sparks an able administrator, who has managed to keep Albert Lea functioning through some very tough years. They see him as smart and stubborn, and as someone who doesn’t become paralyzed by every crisis or criticism that comes along.

Listen to some of his critics, though, and you get an earful about a man who, they say, has single-handedly destroyed Albert Lea’s economic vitality. They say he’s a dictator and a backroom manipulator, tricky and deceitful when it comes to conducting business. Many of this community’s business leaders do not trust him, and say so even though they have to work with him on projects.

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If there is one thing that brings the most criticism it’s the perception that Mr. Sparks is in control of economic development. He actually fills two pairs of shoes for Albert Lea: city manager and director of the port authority. He used to fill three pairs, when he also served as the public housing administrator for the City of Albert Lea, but lost that job when the Housing Authority was set up as an independent agency.

Others have pointed out how being both a developer and a regulator creates obvious conflicting responsibilities (although I wonder why they only seem to have become obvious recently). At any rate, when you put the two roles together, you get one man who can influence nearly every economic development plan this community creates &045; for better or for worse. It’s no wonder people see Mr. Sparks exerting an unhealthy amount of control over the life of the community.

Whether he does really have all that much power and control is harder to prove, though I admit it’s a possibility. Secretiveness is one of Mr. Sparks’ bad habits that contributes to the controversies that swirl around him; it makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to evaluating his true role in the life of this city.

One annoying thing I have noticed about Mr. Sparks is the way he answers questions. Instead of providing a simple answer, he usually provides way too much information, throwing a barrage of facts at questioners. More than one person has commented on how they emerge from a session with Mr. Sparks stunned and confused, not really certain they know more than they did before. I don’t know whether this is his strategy to keep questioners at bay or the only way to accurately answer questions that seem simple on the surface but are complicated underneath &045; which describes many of the issues confronting city government.

I do not know Mr. Sparks all that well (he’s a difficult man to get close to; he keeps his private and professional life separate, and seems as introverted as I am). What I think I know about him is this: When I hear people describe him as a villain, I just don’t see that as a fair portrait. On the other hand, I also don’t think he’s the completely self-effacing civil servant he might want us to see him as. He’s neither a villain or a hero. He’s a human being like the rest of us, a complex combination of light and shadows, with strengths that keep him going and weaknesses that cause him to stumble.

What I also can see is that he’s been given a lot of responsibility. When so much depends on what one person does, I don’t think it matters who that person is; trying to control as many of the variables as possible would seem like the most logical course of action for anybody. It may be that the roles and responsibilities he’s been given have molded him into the kind of leader he has become.

(David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.)