What with the Veterans’ Day holiday, Duluth’s first post-election City Council meeting was pushed back to Tuesday this week. There was a decent crowd on hand, boosted by a brigade of high school students observing the meeting for class. CAO Montgomery was away, and Planning Director Keith Hamre filled his seat. It was also the first meeting for Mr. Howie Hanson, elected last week to fill the vacant Fourth District seat; this was a bit of a struggle for the woman who calls roll, but she sorted it out in the end. Councilor Hanson proceeded to say one word for the rest of the meeting.
With no general citizen speakers, the Council marched straight through the consent agenda and into the consideration of a bunch of bonds and capital equipment notes. There was no discussion here, and the measures passed by the predictable 7-2 margin, with fiscal conservative Councilors Fosle and Stauber opposing both. After that, it was on to the main event: discussion of a resolution identifying two Duluth parks, Lakeside’s Russell Square and Observation Park on Observation Hill, as sites for future dog parks.
Six citizen speakers came forward to speak on the issue; three in favor of the resolution, and three who had issues with one of the two sites. The first two, Mr. William Lynch and his wife, Denette, cheered the resolution. They noted that a dog fence was a cheap and simple project, and the heavy use of the Keene Creek dog park on the west side proved there was a demand. They said the two parks in question were underused and/or worn out, and insisted they would not cause any blight. A Lakeside resident “hated to be a not-in-my-backyard” person, but worried about parking and other animals in the park, saying she was a dog owner herself but did not think Russell Square was a good spot. Finally, noted boxer Zach Walters and another coach at his gym alongside Observation Park, Mr. Al Sands, spoke to the park’s value in its current state. They said they used the park and its jungle gym for classes and sports, and spoke of plans to create a program for returning veterans in need of an outlet; a dog fence, they argued, would limit their operations.
Councilor Hartman then took some time to explain the process, which he called “frustratingly slow,” and he pointed to the extensive vetting process undertaken by the Parks and Rec board. Councilor Larson added to his good vibes and emphasized that this was not a “point of no return” if later public input came out against the parks. She added that dogs are less of a safety hazard when given their own park than when roaming on trails (a fact to which this frequent Lester Park runner can attest—I’ve been nipped at several times). Councilor Gardner was rather snippy with Mr. Walters, accusing him of “taking over” the public park and suggesting this was not the proper venue for complaints; there was a process here, and he needed to attend the community meetings.
This brought Councilor Fosle to life, and he was in vintage Councilor Fosle Form as he meandered through a lengthy rebuttal. He noted that there was no money allocated for dog parks in the city’s capital improvement plan, and said Mr. Walters was indeed at the right meeting, wondering why a park neighbor had not been contacted about the process. He noted that these sorts of resolutions tend to generate momentum that is difficult to stop later on. He said he wouldn’t bring his own show dog to the park for fear of disease or attacks from other dogs. He worried about liability issues, wandered into a discussion of ATVs and the need to make parks useable for everyone, and floated the idea of using old hockey rink boards to set up dog pens.
Councilor Fosle found an unlikely ally in Councilor Julsrud, who asked Mr. Hamry if the resolution was redundant; he replied by saying this was a valid way of doing business, but admitted that, in his work on the Planning Commission, he preferred more of a “blank slate” approach. Councilor Julsrud agreed, saying the neighbors (and not the “dog park enthusiasts”) should have had more of an opportunity to engage the process. Councilor Hartman pushed back against Councilor Fosle’s legal concerns, asking Attorney Johnson if the city had been sued over dog bites at the Keene Creek park. No one had, though Councilor Fosle dragged out this rather silly point by pointing out that the park has been around longer than Atty. Johnson has. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Julsrud in opposition; the city will go forward with the planning process now, though citizens will still have opportunities to voice support or objections at community meetings.
Next up was a resolution discharging the city of a loan made to a condo developer. Councilor Stauber, sad to have his premonitions proven correct, lectured the rest of the council on taking money out of the Community Investment Trust (CIT)—the city’s “nest egg” for street repairs—and using it for interest-free loans on projects that might not work out. He supported the measure, as “something is better than nothing,” but warned the Council that they hadn’t seen the end of such troubles. Councilor Fosle concurred and predicted the complete exhaustion of the CIT in seven years, while Councilor Larson thanked the Administration for making sure the recovered money would go back into the CIT. The resolution passed unanimously.
The Council then took up a $797,000 contract to repair a flood-damaged Chester Creek culvert running beneath the Duluth Armory, and Councilor Julsrud again made her displeasure heard. While she supported the resolution, saying the city would likely end up in court otherwise, she insisted that the group charged with restoring the currently condemned Armory get its act together. If they fail to save the building, the city will have wasted a ton of money, and had it been demolished by now, the culvert would have been left open to the air and thus been far cheaper to repair. Councilor Stauber thanked her for her words and gave everyone another history lesson, saying the Armory saga was “becoming a nightmare,” and that past Councils’ eagerness to support the arts group currently charged with saving the Armory—which it purchased with a $1 check that bounced—had cost it far better alternatives. Councilor Gardner pointed out that other things would be damaged if the culvert were not repaired, and everyone got on board to pass the resolution, 9-0.
The last item on the agenda was a re-zoning of the old Central High School property, which had Councilor Fosle congratulating the school district for its renewed attempts to sell it. Here, Councilor Hanson finally got his one word in: “abstain.” The other Councilors all supported the ordinance, and it passed, 8-0. The closing comments featured mentions of several community meetings on such diverse topics as poverty (Gardner and Krug), crime in Lincoln Park (Krug), councilor appointment processes (Gardner), and ATV trails (Fosle); people hoping for free food at said meetings (Stauber); and gripes about parking at City Hall (Fosle).
The meeting had a transitional feel to it. Councilor Stauber in particular seemed keen to make a mark before he takes his leave, with his cautionary tales of good ideas gone awry when money is thrown around too freely. After the election, which resulted in a huge left-leaning majority on the Council, I suggested that the Council, whatever its ideological proclivities, had to make sure there was quality dialogue, and that no group of people was left out of the debate. Councilor Fosle achieved that with his usual stream-of-consciousness objections, but that was to be expected; in this meeting, I was most impressed by Councilor Julsrud, who was not afraid to ask sharp questions and demand results, no matter her stance on the issue at hand. From a good governance standpoint, this is what I want to hear out of elected representatives: crisp questions, a willingness to learn from the past, careful consideration of community input, and a concise articulation of why they’re voting the way they are. A good council has a healthy variety of styles and approaches, of course, but with ideological divides unlikely to hold up the Duluth City Council, its members must be careful to avoid the most immediate danger: groupthink. They did a decent job of that on Tuesday night, and must continue to do so going forward.