A Bad Night for E-Cigarettes, Bond Debt Resolutions, and Brevity: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/9/13

10 Sep

First off, it’s primary election day…if you’re a Duluth resident and you haven’t voted yet, you have until 8:00. Get out and vote! I’ll have some comments on the results either later tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

A substantial crowd was on hand on a rather disgusting, drizzly Duluth night on Monday, and the Council tried to put its best side forward, with all its gentlemen donning more formal wear than usual (save Councilor Fosle, who wore his regular black polo shirt uniform). Many of the issues introduced or unresolved at the last meeting were back on the agenda, leading to a very long night (and, thus, a very long blog post summary). Councilor Krause opened the meeting by announcing he would not retire until after the next meeting, a change that caused a lot of confusion later on as the Council tried to figure out a timeline to appoint a replacement.

After hearing from a speaker on the proposed Canal Park revitalization who also had some issues with street lights, the Council cleaned up the confusing road salt issue from the previous meeting, with Ms. Linda Ross Sellner again scrutinizing the funding practices and noting environmental damages caused by salt. Councilor Fosle concurred with her worries and hoped that more sand would be used in the future, and with her concern noted, the resolution passed, 9-0, as did the consent agenda.

President Boyle then moved the issue with the largest public interest to the top of the agenda, and no fewer than thirteen speakers came forward to address three ordinances that amended the City Code to regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes. Most of the speakers were in support of the regulations, and the anti-smoking crowd was well-organized and had solid public speakers. Several doctors, healthcare professionals, and members of the American Cancer Society came forward to decry e-cigarettes, expressing their worries about health, secondhand smoke, normalization of smoking around children, and the utility of e-cigs as a smoking cessation device. Three speakers countered them, however; one ranted about bad government regulating things excessively, one asked the Council to put things off until further evidence emerged, and Mr. Brian Annis—a leading advocate who aims to open an e-cig business—returned to cite several studies countering those mentioned by the opposition.

The first of the three amendments would also prove the most contentious, as it sought to eliminate a loophole in the Minnesota Clean Air Act that allows sampling of products in businesses. (The measure would also ban such establishments as hookah bars.) Councilor Krause, in search of a compromise, suggested an amendment with a very strict standard: only businesses with more than 80% of their sales on these products—basically, smoke shops—could allow sampling. This, he argued, would allow people to test the product before purchase, keep businesses in the city, and would not adversely affect children, as they are not allowed in such shops anyway.

However, it quickly became clear Councilor Krause’s amendment would face an uphill battle, as one of his potential supporters, Councilor Fosle, announced his refusal to endorse any attempt to regulate e-cigs at all. He accused the Council of a lack of faith in the state government (which is not as stringent in its restrictions) and made expert use of a red herring by saying the council should be more worried about children trying heroin and ecstasy instead of cigarettes. Councilor Gardner, on the other hand, did break away from the Council’s more liberal voting bloc and announced her support for the Krause amendment. Councilors Krug, Julsrud, and Larson said they would rather hold the line on the Clean Air Act, while President Boyle said he couldn’t support anything that marketed itself in a “cherry bubble gum cotton candy” flavor. The Krause amendment failed, 6-3, with Councilors Krause, Gardner, and Stauber in support of it.

With his amendment gone, Councilor Krause explained why he couldn’t support the ban on sampling. He emphasized property rights, saying private businesses should be able to ban e-cigs as they choose, but nothing more. He also made the point—on which all parties agreed—that existing research was inconclusive on the health effects, and that in the meantime, it made little sense to regulate something that might help people quit. Councilor Gardner agreed, and both pointed out the countless carcinogens and toxic substances we ingest in small quantities every day. Councilor Gardner (a former smoker herself) added that adults are allowed to enjoy silly flavors as well, and that they can make smokers feel less dirty about smoking as they try to quit. Councilors Larson and Julsrud shared a rather different theory of government, and insisted that the Council had an obligation to learn from past manipulations of marketers of tobacco-like products, and that e-cigs should be banned until proven healthy. The Council voted to close the sampling loophole, 6-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Krause in opposition. Mr. Annis left the Chamber in defeat, and a loud noise could be heard from the hallway.

It was at this time that Councilor Gardner took the floor to deliver the most compelling speech I’ve seen since I began attending Council meetings. She conceded defeat, admitting that all of the e-cig restrictions “will pass, and you’ll all be happy,” but took issue with the tactics used by the anti-smoking lobby. The reliance on shame as a bludgeon, she insisted, did more harm than good to everyone involved. She noted that many smokers are poor and low-income people (often without health insurance) who are “humiliated” by anti-smoking campaigns, and claimed these are “polarizing” and “not a good way to change behavior.” She recalled her own adolescent self, and how she’d been attracted to things that were so stigmatized by the supposed do-gooders in the establishment, and wondered what would happen if the anti-smoking groups dropped their expensive shaming campaigns and instead focused their message on cessation devices. “Top-down changing ordinances are not the answer,” she said, saying they were reminiscent of the failed temperance movement. “If we’re a compassionate community, we need to think about this,” she concluded, adding that she felt better now that she’d finished her lecture. Her speech visibly affected several members of the Council and the audience, and one can only hope her words will not be forgotten.

Debate then went forward on the ban on e-cigs in public places, and Councilor Hartman was careful to note that this is not a ban on the product altogether, but merely an effort to regulate them like cigarettes, lest they become a “gateway;” Councilor Krug made similar point about the “slippery slope” of making exceptions to smoking restrictions. Councilor Krause called the measure ineffective, calling it a “band-aid” that could never rectify the “group, family, and cultural dynamics” that push people to take up smoking. Councilor Gardner largely agreed, but figured something was better than nothing, and voted for this measure; it passed, 7-2, with Councilors Krause and Fosle in opposition. The final resolution, a measure that treated the sale of e-cigs like regular cigarettes, passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle being the lonely “no” vote. Councilor Stauber thanked Councilor Gardner for her comments and admitted that this was a “government intrusion,” and while he does not normally support them, he thought that this one was the right thing to do.

After nearly two hours on e-cigarettes, the Council then settled its tax measures for the coming year in the matter of minutes. The right-leaning bloc of Councilors Krause, Fosle, and Stauber raised a few objections, but Councilor Hartman was quick to point out the slight tax decrease, and most of the measures passed along the predictable 6-3 line. (Councilor Fosle also opposed park and bus funding measures that passed 8-1).

Next, the Council revisited the debate over servicing bond debt on street improvement (see last meeting’s notes for details).  Councilor Hartman had fine-tuned the language of the previous measure, this time making it clear that any funds from the casino settlement would be used to replenish the Community Investment Trust (CIT) fund, but the three conservatives once again refused to draw down the CIT any further. This time around Councilor Krause had his own counter-proposal, though his attempt at a compromise on the issue found even less traction than his stance on e-cigarette sampling, as it failed to attract any liberal votes or impress his two conservative colleagues. Sensing an impasse, Councilor Gardner tried to table the measures, but was voted down 5-4; forced to take a side, she continued her tour de force, demanding to know from CAO Montgomery just how much street repair interest on the CIT could fund. The answer was “less than a mile,” and Councilor Gardner rested her case, saying a gamble on the city’s credit rating was not worth less than a mile of road.

Councilor Julsrud was even more direct in her attacks on those defending the CIT, and lashed out at Councilor Krause for “playing politics” with the issue, a reference to things that must have been going on behind closed doors. Councilor Krause defended himself, again complained about the “betrayal” of the Administration that had said it would hold the line, and said he didn’t know how much CIT money the Council might need for streets in the future. Councilor Fosle griped that CAO Montgomery had claimed to be “open to proposals” but had shot them all down, and repeated his line of the night, which accused the city of excessive spending on “fancy, frilly stuff.” Twice during the meeting, Councilor Hartman effectively called his bluff: while Councilor Fosle claims to have a host of money-saving measures in mind to cut out the fancy frills, why haven’t they come before the Council? Still, both measures failed, leaving the debt service issue unresolved.

After the tedious debate over how to go about replacing Councilor Krause (in which Councilor Gardner again had an excellent line by agreeing that Krause’s replacement “shouldn’t be a flaming liberal like myself,” and instead agree with Krause on most issues, and Councilor Stauber did a lot of worrying over subverting the interests of the voters of District Four), Councilor Stauber tried to get the Council to veto an increase in natural gas rates. In a lengthy discourse, he complained that an outside firm had called for a lower rate than the Public Utilities Commission had supported, and that a newfound utilities surplus made the rate increase pointless. Councilor Julsrud commended Councilor Stauber for being “masterful at spinning things,” while Councilor Gardner called him “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” saying the increase amounted to roughly $1.05. Councilor Fosle had his usual complaints, Councilor Hartman had a rejoinder, and Councilor Julsrud said the rate increase would help build a reserve that would help to deal with “ever-changing capital needs.” Councilor Krug said the Council should listen to its commissions unless there is an “egregious” error in their work, while Councilor Krause countered that these taxing authorities often operate in vacuums and didn’t have a good sense of the big picture of city tax rates. The veto attempt failed, 6-3, with Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle in support.

Exhausted, the Council did its best to hurry through most of its remaining business, though Councilor Fosle held up a few issues for comment, and was the lone ‘no’ vote against some legal fees (which Councilor Stauber said had been a “bad decision” but supported anyway). The longest debate was over a reconstruction design for Superior Street; Councilors Fosle and Krause worried about the lack of a funding mechanism, but Councilor Stauber said he was satisfied that the money was there, and Councilor Gardner expressed incredulity that anyone would hold up this project. The measure passed, 7-2. The rest of the agenda passed unanimously, Councilor Larson wished CAO Montgomery a happy birthday, and the Councilors and the four remaining audience members (including myself and two current Council candidates) were relieved to finally exit the chamber, three hours and fifty minutes after the start of the meeting.

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2 Responses to “A Bad Night for E-Cigarettes, Bond Debt Resolutions, and Brevity: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/9/13”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A New Counterweight: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/14/13 | A Patient Cycle - October 15, 2013

    […] Yes, his speeches still wander occasionally, and yes, some things he says come off as hyperbole. A few weeks ago, I called Councilor Fosle’s claim that the city should be worrying about heroin and ecstasy […]

  2. In Which the Councilors Talk for a Very Long Time About Lots of Different Things: Duluth City Council Notes, 12/9/13 | A Patient Cycle - December 10, 2013

    […] to use Community Investment Trust (CIT) funds to service street debts, a proposal that twice failed to reach the necessary 7-vote supermajority needed when Garry Krause was on the Council. He has […]

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