Homeless Rights, Duluth in the NYT, and a Lot of Fighting Over a Shed: Duluth City Council Notes, 1/13/14

A packed house was on hand for the first Duluth City Council meeting of the 2014 session, and Councilors Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ took their seats for the first time. The Council kicked off by electing its new officers, and as Councilor Krug was the only one up for President, she was elected unanimously. The two candidates for Vice President gave brief and rather pointless speeches on their qualifications, with Councilor Fosle saying he had seniority and could run things as well as anyone else, and Councilor Larson listing off a heap of committees and such on which she has served. The Councilor voted 8-1 in favor of Councilor Larson, leaving Councilor Fosle laughing wryly.

Councilor Boyle then recapped several of the Board’s accomplishments in 2013 before swapping seats with his successor. President Krug slowly got into the groove of reading through the various things she is required to read and opening and closing two public hearings. (There have been at least ten public hearings since I started doing this, and there has never been a public speaker at one of them.)

The first big issue of the night was a resolution recognizing a petition asking the city to establish a bill of rights for homeless persons. There were four citizen speakers, including three people who had once been homeless and the executive director of CHUM in Duluth, Ms. Lee Stuart. They spoke to the struggles of homelessness and thanked the many organizations that got behind their effort, asking them to stand as they read the names. (Most of the people in the room stood.) Ms. Stuart explained that, even though most of the points on the bill of rights were already included in law and Duluth has tended to treat its homeless people fairly well, this was a call for deeper conversation and would focus attention on big issues.

The Councilors then took turns expressing their support for the bill of rights. Councilor Gardner echoed many of Ms. Stuart’s words and talked about the importance of organization for a constituency that often believes they have been left behind. Councilor Hanson expressed optimism about turning a corner, while Councilor Filipovich explained how the whole community benefits economically when people have roofs over their heads. Councilors Russ and Boyle emphasized related issues, such as the housing stock of the city, health care, and living wage jobs. The resolution passed unanimously, much to the delight of the crowd, and the Human Rights Commission will now set about making Duluth the first city in the country to have a bill of rights for homeless persons.

There was a mild flare-up over a point of order at this point, as Councilor Fosle asked President Krug if she intended to allow clapping and cheering in the Council Chamber when past Presidents had not. President Krug said she was in control of the room and cut off Councilor Fosle when he tried to respond, saying this would best be dealt with after the meeting. Councilor Hanson abstained from a vote on a contract to an oil company that advertises on his blog, but the rest of the consent agenda passed unanimously.

The resolution on the city’s intended bonding measures passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle in opposition, and Councilor Filipovich was named to fill the outgoing Councilor Stauber’s seat on the Public Utilities Commission. Councilor Gardner then asked for an amendment to a resolution allocating federal community development grant money, shifting some from a housing program to a 3-year job education program for single mothers. Interim County Commissioner Angie Miller came forward to tout the job training program and emphasize its strong support network. Councilors Julsrud and Filipovich expressed their support, but Councilor Fosle got some good indignation out of the rest of the Council when he said that moving money out of the housing program would “throw three families out in the cold.” Councilors Gardner and Russ rushed to explain that this was not the case, and that there were other funding sources. President Krug, on the other hand, upheld her commitment to processes and said she didn’t think the Council should upend its vetting process for single projects. The amendment passed 6-2, and the whole resolution passed 7-1, with Councilor Fosle as the lone ‘no’ vote. (Councilor Larson recused herself from the vote due to her consulting work with some of the organizations involved.)

In one of those paradoxes of local politics, the most contentious issue of the night was an incredibly minor one. A Piedmont couple came before the Council to appeal a Planning Commission decision to deny them a variance that would have allowed them to build a storage shed on their property closer to a stream than is normally allowed by DNR standards. A neighbor came forward to speak against the variance. He complained about the size of the shed (at 12 by 20, it was practically a garage), and dismissed claims that the stream had dried up. He said he had long lobbied to keep houses away from the wetlands around the stream, and said the house had flooded during the June 2012 deluge. The couple countered this last claim, saying it was sewer-related and not caused by the stream, and thanked the city for paying for a sump pump that had resolved their flooding problems.

Councilor Julsrud spoke in support of the couple, saying there was no way this little creek that dried up in summer (of which there are many in Duluth) was actually a trout stream, and that the environmental expert on the Planning Commission had approved of the variance. Councilor Fosle had other ideas, rightly pointing out that the resolution needed to explain the hardship faced by the couple. Councilor Gardner furnished him with one, saying it was a practical difficulty for the couple; everyone else in the neighborhood could build such a shed if they so desired, but they could not. Councilor Fosle found this wanting, saying the couple should have known what they had when they bought the property, and said that the DNR’s standards existed for good reasons. The trout came up again, and Councilors Boyle and Fosle went back and forth on the quality of the couple’s runoff abatement efforts, with Councilor Fosle telling Boyle to “remember this” so that the neighbor could call him when all the runoff ends up in his yard. Councilor Larson came out against the variance, as did President Krug, who once again defended the process and worried about slippery slopes.

Councilor Fosle then decided to make the meeting even more exciting by saying that “everyone should follow rules no matter their affiliation to other people who have been elected,” thus implying that the change was a political favor for the couple, who apparently are related to a local politician. (I have no idea who this is.) Councilor Gardner lashed back, saying “I don’t normally like to respond to the things you say because I don’t want to draw attention to them,” but that she had no choice but to defend herself from a charge of association with someone who was not at all in her political circle. Councilor Hanson took “deep offense” at the charge, said he did not want to spend the next four years “being chastised” by Councilor Fosle, and added that “integrity is everything in my life.” (I here resist the very strong urge to make a comment about his hockey journalism. Onward.) Councilor Fosle sniffed that he hadn’t attacked anyone personally, and asked Councilor Hanson if he’d bothered to talk to the complaining neighbor, who did live in his district.

Councilor Gardner explained that the Council had the authority to overrule the Planning Commission, saying they were not restrained by the procedural dictates it must follow. Councilor Filipovich said the runoff prevention methods had been vetted by city staff, and Councilor Larson did what she could to celebrate everyone having different opinions and told the couple “enjoy your shed!” even though she was voting against it, since she saw how the votes would go. The variance passed, 6-3, with Councilors Fosle, Larson, and Krug in opposition.

The Council unanimously approved its priorities for state legislature lobbying this session, which include restoration projects of the NorShor Theater and Wade Stadium and a river water usage plant for Spirit Mountain. In the closing comments, Councilor Julsrud shared good news about new efficiencies in parking enforcement, Councilor Fosle and President Krug came to a vague resolution of their earlier spat about applause in the Council Chamber, and Councilor Larson tried to get everyone to schedule their summer recess.


Lastly, if you are a Duluthian who lives under a rock/has the good sense not to waste much of your time on social media and missed it, Duluth was on the front page of the New York Times on Monday. (And it wasn’t one of those articles that appear every year in which the national media covers winter weather in Duluth in shock and fright, while all of the interviewed Duluthians shrug and say “meh.”) The article plays off the tried-and-true journalism trope of taking two similar places (Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin) and showing how divergent state politics affects people on both sides of the St. Louis River. I don’t think there’s anything terribly insightful here for anyone with a basic knowledge of general political tendencies. (Breaking news: business owners prefer low taxes! Gay people want to live in states where their marriages have legal standing! Democrats like unions more than Republicans!) It also makes only passing mention of local politics and the particularities of the two cities, which I would have given more weight if I’d been asked to do this sort of piece. Sure, these cities could make interesting test cases—but for all of the cultural similarities, there are also large differences that would make a side-by-side comparison difficult. But it does an effective job of showing some of the effects of the different paths Minnesota and Wisconsin have followed over the past couple of election cycles, and there are some fun little shoutouts that locals will recognize. It will be interesting to chart any changes in economic and personal well-being indicators between the two states, though reality will inevitably be more nuanced than the partisans on either side will ever admit. If they further develop this series and do some follow-ups, it could wind up being a good study.


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