The Duluth City Council met for the final time in 2013 on Monday night, wrapping up its business in front of an average-sized crowd on a snowy December day. The meeting opened with a public hearing on liquor license fees, but Councilor Fosle was the only person to speak, and he only had one brief line saying they were going up too much; an update on the search for a director of Visit Duluth was similarly not very exciting. There were two general citizen speakers, both on issues that came before the Council at the last meeting; a Rice Lake Township resident made his distrust for the city very clear, and a west side business owner urged the Council not to allow ATV usage in the city.
After passing the consent agenda, the Council moved into five finance measures related to bonding, licensing and fines, and a plan to create a system-wide bikeway plan. Councilor Larson amended the licensing and fines resolution to exempt food trucks from the inflation-tied rate hike, as that permit system had only just gone into effect. There was no discussion save some congratulations on the bike plan and some brief grumbles about spending by Councilor Fosle. All of the resolutions passed with at least seven votes, though Councilor Fosle voted against all of them, and Councilor Stauber joined him on three of the five.
After that, it was on to personnel issues, and three of the four changes were again supported by everyone but Councilor Fosle. He complained about the creation of new positions and the spending of money, leading CAO Montgomery to offer rejoinders on each of them, noting that most did not hire new people but simply re-shuffled and re-defined existing positions. Councilor Fosle conceded most of these points, but voted against them all anyway.
There was significant dispute, however, on the Council’s appointment of a new member to the Civil Service Board. Councilor Gardner, the chair of the Personnel Committee, gave a lengthy endorsement of Ms. Beth Tamminen, whose broad scope and vision impressed her, and filled the niche left by the outgoing committee member. Councilors Larson, Krug, and Julsrud, however, in turn endorsed Mr. Eric Forsman, citing his persistence (this was his third attempt to join), his recruiting skills, and his experience with people from diverse economic backgrounds. Everyone hurried to say that both applicants were very good, and Councilors Hartman and Boyle said they were inclined to follow Councilor Gardner’s recommendations. Councilor Fosle came out of left field to ask if all the applicants were Duluth residents. (They are.) The amendment supporting Ms. Tamminen passed, 5-4, with Councilor Fosle joining Larson, Krug, and Julsrud in dissent.
Next up was an attempt to clarify a variance previously given to a developer seeking to build a duplex on the 3100 block of Minnesota Avenue on Park Point, a discussion that brought out eight speakers. Three were with the development group, and they all emphasized their credentials, talked of their many successful past developments, residency on Park Point, and the refusal of their opponents to compromise. The other five speakers, on the other hand, accused the developers of misinformation, a bait-and-switch change in plans, and inadequate search for community input. Two offered up maps, displayed to the Council Chamber on TVs, showing the differences between the original plan and the subsequent changes. They worried about the size of the project and its environmental impact as well, and their last speaker said she knew and respected the developers, but thought they had more work to do.
The upset citizens soon found they faced an uphill battle. Councilor Gardner, who represents Park Point, said this was the only variance she’s ever supported as a Councilor, and was proud to support it again, citing the recommendations of the planning office. Councilor Krug had opposed the initial variance, and in a rather refreshing concession, said she could have said “I told you so,” but chose not to, as the Council had already made its will clear. She thought the Council had a duty to uphold that commitment. Councilor Larson expressed her regret about the confusion, but also announced her support. Councilor Hanson bemoaned the inability of the two sides to get together and find a compromise, and suggested tabling the measure; Councilor Gardner shot him down, saying that would be “destructive” to the project, which is currently under a stop work order. In the end, the Council voted unanimously to approve the resolution.
The Council moved on to a claim settlement with a bicyclist who’d had an accident involving a misplaced manhole cover, which Councilor Fosle had pulled from the consent agenda. His intent, he explained, was not to vote against it, but simply to show that people got hurt in all sorts of odd ways all of the time, and that worries about ATV injuries were thus misplaced. After that, it was another round of finance measures setting tax rates and the budget for 2014. There was no discussion at all, and Councilor Fosle voted against everything, while Councilor Stauber joined him on two of the five ordinances. Everyone else supported all five, and they all passed. Duluthians should have already received mailings explaining the new tax rates for 2014.
The Council wrapped up with two zoning ordinances and one amending the city code on handicapped parking; all three passed unanimously, freeing Councilor Stauber to “recommend approval” for the final time on the Council. “It warms my heart,” said President Boyle upon hearing his catchphrase for the last time.
Councilor Hanson, eager to have the Council revisit the ATV issue from last week, jumped the gun and tried to bring it forward again while the Council was still on the handicapped spaces. When he finally got his opportunity, he explained that he wasn’t really comfortable with his vote last week. He thought the ATV plan was well-intended, but thought the Council had ceded its responsibility over the matter by passing it off to Parks and Rec, and said he’d heard from many residents in his district who wanted trails in their part of town. President Boyle tried to clarify his intent, but before long Councilor Stauber jumped in with a point of order, saying the Council needed to vote to re-open discussion. It promptly voted not to reopen discussion, 5-4, thus ending the matter. Councilors Hanson, Hartman, Julsrud, and Boyle provided the four votes in favor of re-opening the issue. Councilors Hanson and Fosle went back and forth some about ATV possibilities in the closing comments, leading President Boyle to suggest they meet up and hash this out some other time.
There were also a few more words about the Rice Lake Township annexation talk, which the city had dropped. It involved a lot of repetition of last week’s points. Councilor Fosle said he wished the city spent half the time trying to create jobs that it did trying to annex people, prompting a figure-filled response from CAO Montgomery over jobs created in recent years. While Councilor Fosle’s grandstanding on the issue was a rather curious act by a public representative of a city, I will agree with him on one thing: if the Duluth really wants to grow to 90,000 people in the coming years, annexing townships seems like, well, cheating. It may be a practical idea for other reasons, but when I first heard the 90,000 figure, I thought it was an admirable goal that should inspire the city to develop in certain ways, not serve as an excuse to re-draw lines. But the issue is now dead for the time being, and the Council wrapped up with lighter matters.
With this meeting, we bid a fond farewell to two Councilors, Dan Hartman and Jim Stauber. Many councilors paused to say kind words about both of them, with Councilor Gardner citing Hartman’s growth and Stauber’s exemplary ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Councilor Larson gave them both gag gifts: a monster-sized coffee mug for Hartman, a proponent of Coffee with the Council at Louie’s Café (there’s one more session this Friday at 8 AM!), and a bookmark for Stauber that said “recommend approval.”
In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Hartman served one term, was the youngest member of the Council, and was always upbeat, reliably liberal, and led the charge on any number of initiatives. Stauber served three terms (roughly “forty years,” as Hartman joked), was one of the oldest Councilors, and was a conservative who chose his battles and told many cautionary tales of good intentions gone awry. From what I saw, both seemed to genuinely enjoy their work, and got along agreeably with their colleagues. While staunch in their views, both were willing to take other opinions into account, and took the occasional surprise stance.
Both men were (and are) true politicians, too. They knew how to ask good questions, were precise in their messaging, and were willing to fight back when challenged. Hartman had an uncommon enthusiasm for the minutiae of local government, and when he broke from the majority, it was usually to uphold commitments to processes and defend established ways of doing business, even if those ways weren’t always the most logical. Stauber likewise prioritized decorum, though he was sometimes willing to bend established practices when he saw a course he believed to be more practical. On their own, both were effective Councilors with distinct voices; in tandem, they were an excellent pair, each possessing strengths that counteracted the weaknesses of the other.
They may both be leaving the Council, but I doubt either of them will go away; Hartman is still young and enough of a junkie that he’ll remain active in local politics in some capacity, while Stauber is running in the special election for the St. Louis County Board in January. One of the newly elected Councilors, Zack Filipovich, fills a similar demographic to Hartman; we’ll see if he or someone else can match Hartman’s energy on the Council. Stauber’s departure, on the other hand, leaves the Council devoid of any traditional conservatives. (Councilor Fosle is a fiscal conservative, but often a militant one, and he has some other quirks that make him hard to pin down as precisely as Stauber or former Councilor Garry Krause.)
To get a better handle on the nine Councilors slated to serve for the next two years, I’ll give a rundown on all of them sometime between Christmas and the first meeting of the 2014 session in early January.
Also, I’m going to miss a public meeting for the first time since I started going to them in June, and will not be at the School Board meeting tomorrow night. I’ll be keeping up on what happens, though, and will probably have some sort of note later in the week, which will at the very least offer some comments on the outgoing Board members. For now, though, I’ll settle for recommending the approval of this blog post.