Paying the Mayor and Getting Locally Laid: Duluth City Council Notes, 11/25/13

25 Nov

It’s winter in Duluth now, with the Christmas City of the North Parade behind us and snow collecting on the streets late in the afternoon. Still, the atmosphere in the Council Chamber was warm on Monday night, and a modest crowd included a bunch of curious citizens, newly-elected Councilors, and the now-usual group of high school students on hand for class purposes. Councilor Fosle was absent, depriving the community of his creative critiques, but the Council had some quality debate anyway.

The meeting opened with a special public hearing on the tax increment financing (TIF) plan for the new Maurices tower, which the Council explored during its October 28 meeting. Only one person came forward to address the Council on the issue, but he was a man with clear experience in TIF affairs: St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson, who represents the Highway 53 corridor from just beyond Hermantown north to Virginia and Eveleth. He lectured the Council over its plans to use TIF money to finance the project, complaining of how the governments have a habit of using obscure acronyms and names for tax increases. He complained that TIF property taxes affect not just Duluth, but the entire county, and that using it shows preferential treatment for certain projects. He also argued that a 25-year TIF was “excessive” and offered to work with the council on a ten-year abatement instead. After the meeting, Councilor Stauber commented on his speech, saying that he usually thought the city used TIF well and that the Maurices tower was probably good as it was, but that Commissioner Nelson’s concerns do deserve a spot at the table.

The Council then moved into official business. Councilor Larson reminded everyone of upcoming streets task force public meetings, including one tomorrow (Nov. 26) at Denfeld at 6:00 PM. Next, a resolution awarding grant money from the parks fund was pulled from the consent agenda because there were two citizen speakers on the topic. They both thanked the Council for its support of youth programs in the city and told happy stories of summers of sailing, fishing, gardening, paddle-boarding, and watching purple martins. Pleased by the upbeat update, the Council passed the funding unanimously, along with the rest of the consent agenda.

The main event of the evening was a debate over a plan to raise the salary of the mayor of Duluth. Councilor Gardner, clad in an intriguing plaid lacy thing, introduced the measure with some lengthy backstory. She said the mayor hasn’t had a raise since 2000, and shared some details of her extensive comparisons of mayoral salaries of Duluth to other cities in Minnesota. This is complicated somewhat by Duluth’s unusually strong mayor; in many Minnesota cities, the mayor is mostly a figurehead, whereas the CAO does most of the administrative work. Because of this, Councilor Gardner also looked at a number of cities in Wisconsin, and found that her proposed increase still kept the mayor’s salary on the low side. Finally, she announced plans for a new review committee of Councilors and involved citizens who would meet to determine the mayor’s salary in the future.

Councilor Larson then introduced an amendment to the proposal, which eliminated the original plan to back-pay the mayor the new salary for 2013, and instead started it on December 1. She emphasized that the raise was for the position, not the person who holds it; in her opinion, back-pay jeopardized this, and brought merit into the equation. CAO Montogmery said Mayor Ness was also uncomfortable with the back-pay, so the Council unanimously approved the amendment.

A number of Councilors spoke in favor of the resolution. Councilor Krug gave some history, noting that the Council had voted for increases fairly steadily in the 90s before abandoning the issue entirely after 2000, even though the city charter says it should be reviewing the pay scale regularly. Councilor Julsrud talked up the benefits of the city’s strong, responsive mayoralty and talked of the city’s responsibility to attract the best people possible, insisting pay had to be somewhat competitive with other city jobs. Councilors Gardner and Hartman broke out comparisons to cost-of-living adjustments and consumer indices to point out that the newly proposed salary would still have less purchasing power than the current figure had when first established in 2000; the increase simply looked large since the salary had been neglected for 14 years.

The dissenters were led by Councilor Stauber, even though he opened his remarks by saying he had “no delusions” that he would convince anyone. His first complaint was about the process; while he appreciated Councilor Gardner’s move to establish a new method, he wondered why this particular increase was being rushed through just six days after the proposal had come up, with little chance for public input. He pointed out that the Council has not had a raise since 1999, and said it doesn’t deserve one; they are public servants, not civil servants, and a 25 percent raise is “over-the-top.” He also had issues with the comparison process, noting that the mayor’s salary per citizen would be far higher than in other cities, and pointed out that Duluth does have a CAO to help run things. He made it clear he didn’t think much of Wisconsin, either. Councilors Hartman and Gardner pushed back against his point about Council pay, noting it is an entirely different process.

Before moving to a vote, President Boyle also shared his thoughts, and somewhat surprisingly broke from the Council’s liberal bloc. He called the process “rushed,” saying it needed a forum for more input, and suggested that past trends in pay increases weren’t of much use due to widespread salary stagnation after the recession. The resolution passed, 5-3, with the otherwise silent Councilor Hanson joining the dissenters.

While a number of ordinances were read for the first time—promising us a busy meeting next time around—there was only one other piece of business this week, a small land sale that went through unanimously. This brought the Council to the public comment section, in which the mystery of Councilor Gardner’s attire was solved, as she pulled back her intriguing plaid lacy thing to reveal a Locally Laid t-shirt. Locally Laid, I’m afraid, is not an escort service for localists, but instead a Wrenshall, MN poultry farm that is in the running to have its ad aired during the Super Bowl. (Councilor Hartman warned the public not to Google “locally laid” without mention of eggs, but when I did so immediately upon returning home, I only got the farm.) Locally Laid is in close competition with some company in Oakland, which has got itself tied up in litigation with the Beastie Boys over the song it used in its commercial. So, support artists’ copyright protections and give yourself an excuse to use a whole bunch of quality innuendos by voting LoLa here:

www.votelola.com

It involves making one click–no need to make an account or click through five screens. Just vote. The poll closes Dec. 1, and you can vote once a day.

UPDATE: Mayor Ness has decided to reject his salary increase. The DNT has more here.

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