Questions on the Duluth’s 2nd District City Council Appointment

The Duluth City Council’s 2nd District vacancy drama took another twist on Wednesday night. It turns out that, according to FairVote Minnesota, the Council erred when it declared Joel Sipress the winner of the vote to fill the seat. The News-Tribune has the details here. I have a bunch of questions.

Joel Sipress took an oath of office. Isn’t that a binding action?

This is a procedural question, but it’s worth asking. Sipress said the right thing in the News Tribune article, and said he’d let the other eight Councilors decide his fate. But now that he’s actually part of the Council, can they legally do that? Without consulting the Charter, I would think that he’d need to resign his post for that to move forward. If this isn’t the case, that is a weird loophole: conceivably, the Council could revisit the appointment of a Councilor at any time, and on a whim. This isn’t like a decision to revisit some random resolution; it’s about a man who is, rightly or wrongly, a member of their Council now, and that leads into my next question.

Might not “revisiting the matter” only politicize it?

The two Councilors quoted in the DNT, it is worth noting, did not support Sipress. I trust their motives, and I would think most people would agree there was something deeply flawed with what happened on Monday. Still, if some of the Sipress supporters don’t think the matter should be revisited, it would be very easy for both sides to claim the other side is playing politics, rightly or wrongly. While it only takes a simple majority to revisit the issue, I would argue the Council needs at least 7 votes in favor of revisiting the appointment to legitimize the process. If there is concerted opposition to revisiting the matter, it will only make an ugly process look uglier.

If the Council revisits the appointment, how does it avoid ending up with the exact same deadlock?

In the DNT piece, Councilor Julsrud said the Council should vote anew on its three finalists. Does anyone actually think that anyone will change their mind? Won’t we just end up in the exact same place we were on Monday night? Unless they all know that one of their number has had a change of heart, I don’t see this ending well at all.

The alternative that might—possibly—break the deadlock would be to start the process anew and take applications and conduct interviews again. Even that would carry the threat of a similar outcome, though.

How quickly can the Council change the City Charter to allow for a special election?

If we’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s this: the Council’s attempts to appoint replacement Councilors have been unqualified disasters. An otherwise thoroughly competent and professional Council has been made to look silly twice. No amount of fine-tuning the process will fix this. The problem isn’t with the process. It’s with the very premise. Eight people should not be deciding who represents a district of over 15,000. The people of District 2 need to elect their own Councilors.

The obvious long-term solution here—as several Councilors readily acknowledged on Monday night—is a change to the City Charter to allow for a special election. They need to make it happen, and as quickly as possible. If they are worried about making a post hoc change, Councilor Sipress could conceivably remain on the Council (while ideally abstaining from everything) before resigning once the changes have been made. That would require his cooperation, but I think it’s the most sensible way forward.

What is FairVote Minnesota’s role here, and where’s the accountability?

This is a bit of an aside, but it should be mentioned: the statement from Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota in the News Tribune claims that “the Duluth City Council deviated from the prescribed process” for ranked choice (IRV) elections. The Council arrived at its process, however, after consultation with people at FairVote Minnesota. This would seem to suggest that someone at FairVote Minnesota erred, and the organization should probably own that mistake.

FairVote Minnesota also claims it is “not attached to the outcome” of the vote. If this is the case, why were the City Clerk and the City Attorney calling them? The city needs to figure out what its relationship with this organization is, and should obviously not be relying on them for legal opinions if the organization does not purport to offer them.

That’s enough for now. I welcome comments, replies, and further questions…we need to sort out this mess as quickly as possible.


4 thoughts on “Questions on the Duluth’s 2nd District City Council Appointment

  1. Having spoken with number of people involved in this situation hopefully I can shed some light on the questions you raise in your post. Because the appointment is made through an ordinance process it can be voted on to be “re-examined” and then it can be voted on again for passage or defeat. It is a strange process but yes, is a loophole in the appointment process. Such votes would only require a simple majority of the councilors who originally voted on the measure. Mr. Sipress will be directed to abstain because of his now financial conflict of interest as a councilor.

    When revisiting the issue, the councilors will have to decide on a method to break a tie should another tie occur. My thought here is that it would be best for them to decide on this process before opening the issue up to another vote. This would clear the air and allow for all councilors to understand the process to be followed.

    Unfortunately, while I agree that a special election would solve this problem once and for all, it would take months to officially change the charter. The processes for charter amendment can be found starting on page 15 of this document:

    Finally, to your questions and concerns about FairVote. This situation in many ways has used FairVote and RCV as scapegoats for the many mishaps that occurred. First, an attempt to make contact with FairVote occured because they are the state experts on how RCV works and how the ballot count should be made.. It should be clarified that the council itself never contacted staff at FairVote. City staff attempted to make contact (by leaving a phone message) while determining how to count the ballots. When a representative of FairVote did connect with city staff, said city staff informed FairVote that they believed their question had already been answered and did not need FairVote’s further assistance. Had staff at FairVote had the opportunity to fully assist in the ballot count, city staff would have been informed that through RCV the result was again a tie.

    Because the city attorney and clerk believed that they had figured out the process they reported back to the council which took their word on the accuracy of the count and process and proceeded to appoint Mr. Sipress based on this faith. It was after this that it was discovered that a proper RCV process had not occurred as believed by the councilors. For some councilors, this feeling of being misled in the decision making process has brought forth this idea of revisiting the appointment.

    Hopefully this provides some answers.

    • Thanks…I understand the re-examination process, I just am very suspicious that it will work, and think it runs the risk of further politicizing the process. My impression is that the supporters of both candidates are staunch in their stances and unlikely to back down. I agree that they need to be confident in their tiebreaking measures if they do go down that road.

      Even having read of the process to change the charter, I would still push for making that change ASAP. This Council loses people to other elective offices routinely, so this isn’t going away. (We could easily lose another one this November, if Krug wins the 7A House seat.) It is especially bothersome when it involves a representative of a district, not an at-large. I’ll defer to residents of the 2nd District as to whether they are willing to go without representation for a time in order to get this right. Obviously, it’s important that they’re represented, but is a representative appointed by questionable means better than none at all?

      Thanks for the clarification on FairVote. Personally I am a proponent of RCV so long as people know how to use it; I thought the DNT’s editorial did unfairly demonize it.

      • Oh yes, they definitely need to make the changes to allow for special elections. As that process is defined I have two concerns:
        1) Cost of future special elections; while not huge, this is an added expense that needs to be prepared for
        2) Time frames for special elections, particularly because there is time requirement between announcement of an SE and when it can be held. Do they hold SEs when there is only a few months left in a term? Or do they set up a system where they still appoint in special circumstances but allow for SEs in other cases?

        I’ll be very curious to see how the conversations unfold.

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