After a month-long recess, the Duluth City Council re-convened on Monday night in front of an unusually small crowd in the council chamber. There wasn’t a single citizen speaker, and the agenda was on the light side, but the Council still found plenty to wrangle about.
The meeting opened with city Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery giving the council two updates. The first regarded repairs planned for the perennially out-of-service Minnesota Slip Bridge, a pedestrian walkway that has become such a financial drain that Mayor Ness recently proposed getting rid of the thing altogether as part of a larger redevelopment of the waterfront area. CAO Montgomery then gave several updates on FEMA funding for damage from the 2012 flood; over half of the funds have now been approved, though some were rejected, a small sum is going through an appeals process, and a large chunk—some $15 million in stream restoration—is still pending approval. Satisfied, the Council proceeded to approve the consent agenda unanimously, and CAO Montgomery asked them to return a resolution on street improvement to Administration.
Next up was a resolution for the purchase of three street maintenance trucks, and Councilor Fosle, who was in a combative mood all night long, voiced his displeasure. “Maybe if I keep saying this, someone will listen,” he said, griping that he had been a mechanic for thirty years and that the maintenance costs and supposed wear-and-tear on the existing city vehicles were out of hand. He figured the city either “asked for lemon vehicles” or that the Facilities Department is “trying to make money for itself.”
Council Stauber said he “appreciated Councilor Fosle’s expertise,” and also announced he would not support the measure. CAO Montgomery said the city had run comparisons to other shops and found the repair rates comparable; Councilor Krause pressed him on these numbers, but appeared to be satisfied by the response. Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Krug expressed support and emphasized how well-informed they were, with Krug detailing her visit to the garage last year to inspect the city fleet. Councilor Fosle, while unconvinced, did agree with the other Councilors over the need to address the billing system. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.
The next two topics of debate both involved the issuance of temporary liquor licenses to local establishments. The first was for the recently reopened Hacienda del Sol restaurant, which owes the city over $33,000 in back taxes and utility bills; Councilor Julsrud, while professing her love for Hacienda, noted that “that’s a lot of burritos,” and asked CAO Montgomery about its financial stability. CAO Montgomery lacked exact numbers but said the restaurant had been meeting deadlines for some time, and he also reassured Councilor Krause that a “tenacious” new employee was on hand to flag potentially troublesome businesses and ensure this wouldn’t happen again. Councilor Gardner pointed out that a liquor license would make it easier for Hacienda to pay back its tab, and Councilor Julsrud recommended further short extensions of the license so as to hold the restaurant accountable. The measure passed, 9-0.
The second license concerned the Flame Nightclub, which was seeking to expand its operation, though its owner had admitted to Council President Boyle that recent troubles with crime around the establishment would likely force the delay in the expansion. The police had compared the crime numbers at the Flame to other local bars at a meeting during the previous week, but Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Julsrud did not think it was a particularly good comparison, as the Flame is a fairly unique establishment. Given the confusion, Councilors Krause and Larson said they hoped the resolution would be tabled, but Counsel advised the Council to go ahead and vote. Much grumbling and confusion followed; Councilors Gardner and Hartman suggested they approve the license anyway and give the Flame a test run to see if it had cleaned up its act, while Councilors Krug, Larson, and Krause thought it best to respect the unanimous ruling of an advisory council against the permit until the situation improved, which they were confident it would. Counsel assured Councilor Fosle that it would be easy for the Flame to re-apply, and the Councilors then voted down the license 7-2, with the votes in support coming from Councilors Gardner and Hartman.
The last contentious issue on the agenda involved a resolution supporting an assessment of the main Duluth Public Library facility. Councilor Larson led the charge, noting heavy usage and major inefficiencies in the 33-year-old building, and CAO Montgomery said the existing building is at a “tipping point” due to its serious energy inefficiencies and the evolution in library usage over the years. Councilor Krause asked where the money would come from; while CAO Montgomery’s answer was vague, Councilor Larson assured him funds had already been allocated from the 2011 Capital Fund.
Councilor Fosle was not a fan of the resolution. He noted that there are many buildings older than this one—a charge that Councilor Hartman called “unfair to say out loud” given the differences among the buildings in question—and wondered why the Council should be thinking about replacing a functional building when community centers across the city were still closed. He went on to rail against how the Council was “spending more money every time we turn around,” raising taxes and fees; “this kind of funding has to stop,” he insisted.
Several people in the room responded to his outburst. Councilor Julsrud said that the library is, effectively, a community center, and CAO Montgomery was at pains to counter Councilor Fosle’s portrayal of the city’s tax record. Councilor Gardner said the community centers and the library were not under the same umbrella; this led Councilor to Fosle to ask whether a referendum passed in the 2011 election covered both parks and libraries. CAO Montgomery answered that it only provided money for parks; his response, while technically correct, failed to note that the general fund savings from the referendum’s passage were explicitly allocated for the library. (Full disclosure: I am currently employed in a temporary position by the Duluth Public Library.) He also explained to Councilor Fosle that there was no good way to tell how many library users were Duluth residents.
Councilor Krause, in an effort to hold the middle ground, acknowledged Councilor Fosle’s worries about the community centers, and noted that their usage, when trails and youth sports are taken into account, could easily exceed that of the library. However, given that the funding for the assessment had already been budgeted, he announced his support for the resolution. It passed, 8-1, leaving Councilor Fosle to grumble during the closing remarks about how such resolutions seem to snowball far beyond their initial intent. It concluded a long night of calls for fiscal restraint from Councilor Fosle; while that voice needs to be heard, his complaints often appeared haphazard and not altogether coherent. Until he can pull together his critiques into a well-honed message, he will be unlikely to generate more than a few polite nods from the Councilors who are closest to him in their political views. Otherwise, he comes across as a loose cannon, and it requires serious effort to filter his most cogent points out from all the other noise.