In Which the Councilors Talk for a Very Long Time About Lots of Different Things: Duluth City Council Notes, 12/9/13

On Monday night, scores of Duluthians braved brutal roads to attend a three-hour marathon city council meeting. It was the largest crowd I’ve seen yet, even after the thirty or so high school kids—there on behalf of the Duluth delegation of Youth in Government, as one of their number explained as the sole citizen general speaker—cleared out after the first few issues. No one spoke in a public hearing on the budget, and CAO Montgomery was happy to announce that southbound I-35 would re-open this Wednesday, following extensive repairs. Councilor Larson also plugged two events rescheduled after last week’s snowstorm, a community development public hearing for today (Tuesday) and the Libations at the Library fundraiser this Wednesday at 6:30. (I’ll give that one a strong endorsement.)

Councilors pulled two items off the consent agenda, and Councilor Fosle was confused for confusing reasons over why a third item had been pulled, but once that was over with, it passed unanimously. Councilor Gardner’s pulled resolution concerned an agreement with a law firm for legal services in grievance arbitration with unions; she wanted to know where this money would go, as she’d heard on the news that some of it might go to a case involving a Duluth police officer recently acquitted on charges of brutality for this. (Warning: violent video.) Councilor Fosle took her concerns a step further and made it quite clear he wanted the officer removed, and somehow this became grounds for voting against the resolution. A citizen speaker came up (rather unusually) in the midst of this discussion to say that outside legal help would be a good idea in this case due to perceived conflicts of interest. This prompted CAO Montgomery to give some history on past outside legal help in arbitration cases, saying the city has moved to keep them internal in recent years, and only uses the outside law firm when it needs specific help. This satisfied everyone but Councilor Fosle, and it passed, 8-1.

Next up was a return to the debate over whether 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 He has since been replaced by Councilor Hanson, however, and he made his intentions clear right off the bat, breaking the silence of his first two Council meetings to introduce an amendment guaranteeing that any funds from a court settlement with the Fon Du Luth Casino would go back into the CIT. While technically a redundant amendment due to city charter stipulations, the Councilors liked its clarity, and, after some wrangling about the wording that Atty. Johnson settled, the amendment passed unanimously. The actual vote generated a little more debate, as Councilors Fosle and Stauber reiterated their opposition, with Councilor Stauber noting that the city’s bond rating has actually improved in recent months despite the measure sitting in traction. Councilor Gardner and CAO Montgomery had immediate rebuttals, saying the rating agencies had specifically noted this measure’s likely passage as a reason. Councilor Hartman pointed out that the CIT is designed to pay for streets and is nowhere near as liquid as the general fund, while Councilor Hanson talked about the amount of thought he had put into the issue before deciding to support it. The measure passed, 7-2.

The Council then moved on to a resolution exploring the feasibility of creating an ATV trail in Duluth. ATVs have been banned on city public land since 2004, but now a group of ATVers, with help from Councilor Fosle, is looking for a place to ride in town. There were six citizen speakers on the issue. Four were from the ATV community, and gave various reasons to support the measure; one was disabled and could not hike city trails well, another talked about efforts to train young people (whose illegal usage of ATVs was at the root of the initial ban) in responsible ATVing and new legislation that has gone into place, and several talked about the economic benefits of bringing in ATVs. A fifth speaker, a representative of the COGGS biking group, took no clear stance on the issue, but made it clear that he expected any ATV trail to go through rigorous assessments, and should not share an existing bike trail. The final speaker, Mr. Erik Viken of the Parks Board, asked for some clarification from Councilor Fosle, and said the ATVers should develop their own proposal rather than handing it to the Parks Board at this time, lest they place an undue burden on the Board.

Councilor Larson then introduced an amendment to focus the review to sites to the west of Cody Street. As Councilor Fosle explained, the likely site for the trail is the former DWP railroad line, which can certainly handle the impact of motorized vehicles; the amendment would allow the planners to focus on that specific area. Councilors Julsrud and Stauber expressed their opposition; both thought it neglected the rest of the city, while Councilor Julsrud added worries about the resolution’s vagueness and the burdens on the Parks Board when the city had already identified other priorities for parks. Councilor Krug declared herself open to being persuaded; Councilor Larson said focusing on the west side made sure the project would move forward, and Councilor Hanson pointed out that people will have to take ATVs to trailheads on trailers no matter where it is. The amendment passed, 7-2.

Discussion then moved on to the resolution proper, and Councilor Fosle insisted that these were merely baby steps. Councilor Stauber, hoping this would be a gateway to further ATV trail-building, announced his support as well. Despite reservations over ATVs, Councilors Hartman and Gardner said it was only fair that the city go ahead with the feasibility study; the “city has a mandate to represent everyone,” including ATV riders, Councilor Krug added. Speaking more pointedly than usual, CAO Montgomery said that if this really is a gateway to broader ATV usage in the city, environmental damage caused by illegally-ridden ATVs is very real, and that the trail is unlikely to change this fact. He said local ATV groups must rein rogue riders in, noting that snowmobile groups had successfully done so in the past, so it is possible. Councilor Julsrud reiterated her points about priorities, but was the lone ‘no’ vote, as the resolution passed, 8-1.

One of the ATV people spoke on the next issue as well, which asked the state to raise a speed limit on rural St. Louis River Road. Councilor Fosle took up the cause, and found supporters in Councilors Stauber and Gardner; given the road’s location and apparent usage, they thought the 30 MPH speed limit unusually low. CAO Montgomery did not recommend approval, however, saying that city engineers and police both had their reasons for the lower limit. The rest of the Council agreed, saying their process ought to be respected, and deferred to the experts. The resolution failed, 6-3; Councilor Fosle asked if roads could be annexed to neighboring communities, and got a ‘yes’ out of Atty. Johnson.

Six hardy speakers had waited out the discussions for the next Council issue, which was a proposal that restored the Heritage Preservation Commission’s (HPC) ability to bestow historic landmark status on local buildings. All six supported the ordinance; their most convincing speaker was Mr. Tony Dierckins of Zenith City Online, who told the Council not to be “afraid of landmark status.” He said the HPC was merely an advisory committee to the Planning Commission and the Council, which had final say, and that owners could always appeal. Ms. Caroline Sundquist added that threats of lawsuits were overblown, as HPCs’ authority to bestow historic status has been upheld time and time again in courts.

Councilor Gardner then expressed her support, saying the original removal was an error that had to be fixed. She worried about the city losing its status to certify historic sites, and pointed out several projects that had benefitted from landmark designation, such as Sacred Heart, Fitgers, and Tycoons. Councilors Larson and Hartman agreed, while Councilor Stauber, though joking that his age made him well-aware of the importance of old things, did not. He said the HPC’s loss of authority was “no accident,” and that the administration had known what it was doing in stripping away its powers. He thought the HPC had gone too far in the past; any property owner not wanting historic status foisted on their building would have to “go on the defensive” and hire lawyers. The HPC’s role, he concluded, should be limited to working with owners in a cooperative way to establish historic status.

Councilor Fosle asked CAO Montgomery if this was an accurate portrayal of the administration’s past stance, and he said it largely was. He added that the administration was okay with the changes, so long as the Council understood that these processes require care. While there are obvious benefits to historic status, he added that they can sometimes add costs and tie things up. (This suggestion had the pro-HPC people in the audience throwing up their hands in disbelief.) Councilor Julsrud counseled a pragmatic approach, saying the Council should support the HPC unless it starts throwing around designations in an undisciplined way, in which case its status could be again revoked. The ordinance passed, 7-2, with Councilors Stauber and Fosle in opposition. The remaining ordinances passed unanimously, despite Councilor Larson’s joking threat to filibuster one of them just to make the meeting drag on even longer; one of the ordinances in question adapted a historic church for use as a dance studio.

Despite a lengthy meeting with plenty of debate, the Council saved its biggest fireworks for the comment section at the end of the night. Councilor Gardner reminded the Councilors that anyone hoping to be Council President or Vice President in 2014 had to declare their candidacy by the end of the next meeting. Councilors Fosle and Larson promptly threw their hats in the ring for VP, while Councilor Krug said she would seek the presidency; Councilor Julsrud said she would wait until 2015, despite having had several people encourage her to go for it. Councilor Krug asked CAO Montgomery for an update on plans to annex part of Rice Lake Township; he assured her that they were merely in a conversation stage, and that the township will certainly vote on the measure if it moves forward. The measure would be nonbinding, though he said he had no interest in a hostile takeover.

Councilor Fosle made his opposition to the annexation immediately clear, saying he’d be at a Rice Lake town hall meeting the next night to “tell them the truth”: that Duluth is just trying to add population for government aid purposes, and that this would saddle them with all sorts of new fees and taxes. “There’s more going on here,” he said, not for the first time. This drew an upset reaction from CAO Montgomery, who said that it’s “not all conspiracies and black helicopters.” He insisted that the township’s residents would be consulted, and that their taxes would be lower in the end. He lived in a township, he said, and understood the emotions at play in the debate. Councilor Gardner likewise lashed out at Councilor Fosle, saying it was “not appropriate” for councilors to attend township meetings and try to influence an emotional discussion. She reminded Councilor Fosle that he is a representative of the city, and that he should not pretend otherwise by referring to the city government as “you guys,” thus excluding himself.

Councilor Krug apologized for bringing up the annexation debate, though she was nonetheless happy to see dialogue, while Councilor Julsrud offered cautious support for annexation, hoping rationality would prevail over emotion. Councilor Fosle got the last word, simpering that the Council’s reaction had already “let me know that I don’t stand a chance at being Vice President.” He insisted these were just the facts, not a conspiracy theory, and that CAO Montgomery and people like him moved to townships to escape the big government found in cities.

On that cheery and friendly note, the Council wrapped up its business. It’s hard to sum up such a busy night in a few short words, but it was largely a productive meeting, with many predictable sparring lines, and also a few mild surprise stances. Councilor Fosle’s busy night, I think, showed why he should not be in Council leadership, though I don’t necessarily say that as a condemnation: the man is an eternal insurgent, and is most effective when lobbing bombs from places where people don’t necessarily expect. I think it’s healthy to have that on the Council, but probably not in a leadership position, especially since he has few allies. The efficient Councilor Krug and consensus-building Councilor Larson are probably better-suited for leadership roles.

The final meeting of the year takes place next Monday, and will also be the final meeting for the outgoing Councilors Hartman and Stauber. I’ll wrap up the year and say a few words about them in next week’s write-up.


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