The Duluth City Council held a special meeting Thursday night to review the confused appointment of Joel Sipress to the 2nd District City Council seat. (See my notes on the meeting here, and my questions after the meeting here.) President Krug opened the meeting with a lengthy monologue, saying she had “never seen something quite as unseemly as this past week,” both in her time on the Council and during her work with University of Minnesota-Duluth faculty union.
After this opening, President Krug was at pains to insist she did not have any conflicts of interest in the vote, as some rumors had suggested since the initial meeting. (Kathy Heltzer is married to Krug’s spouse’s aunt.) She said that sort of tie was no different from the professional relationships several of the Councilors enjoyed with other candidates for the open seat, and said that, since the marriages were relatively recent—both couples in question are gay, and thus were not legally recognized as married until this past year—she hadn’t even thought of things in that way.
This explanation complete, President Krug then said that she called the meeting because the Council “did not follow established rules” and “filled the vacancy on a tie; integrity demanded a revisit. She went on to explain that the city charter does not allow for a special election, and that while Councilor Gardner will push a change to the charter at the next meeting, it “cannot be done in time.” She finished by suggesting that keeping the result would “silence” the voices of four members of the Council, and moved to reconsider the resolution appointing Sipress.
A tense pause followed before Councilor Julsrud moved the motion, and after a longer pause, Councilor Larson seconded it “for the sake of conversation.”
Councilor Fosle began the conversation by disagreeing with President Krug’s premises. He said that the Council should respect the initial ruling of Clerk Cox and Attorney Johnson, and that there were alternative ways to count votes via ranked choice voting. Echoing a point I made in my last post, he noted that Sipress had taken the oath, and asked Atty. Johnson if they could really unseat a Councilor in this manner. Atty. Johnson replied that they indeed could.
Councilor Julsrud then repeated many of President Krug’s points. She took care to explain her vote had nothing to do with Sipress, but was instead a “matter of justice” and wondered if half of the council was “comfortable with silencing the other half.” She also decried how political the whole process was behind the scenes, and said she had received “arm-twisting phone calls” by people trying to influence her vote.
Councilor Larson offered somewhat more tentative support for re-opening the vote, while Councilor Filipovich, after detailing his lengthy consultations with local politicians and citizens, came out against revisiting the resolution. “Why overturn a unanimous vote?” he asked, referring to the resolution to approve Sipress once he had been declared the winner via RCV, and listed several other challenges he would rather move on to face.
With no more comments, President Krug moved the reconsideration to a roll-call vote. The four Councilors who had supported Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson) voted against reconsideration, while the four who had supported Heltzer (Julsrud, Krug, Larson, Russ) voted for it; Councilor Sipress, for obvious reasons, abstained. The move to reconsider thus failed to achieve the necessary five-vote majority, and Councilor Sipress will retain his seat.
The even margin confirms my concern heading into this meeting: nobody had budged, and it is very easy to construe the motives on both sides as being political. I don’t fault President Krug for at least raising the question; this was an instance in which the Council was damned if it did and damned if it didn’t. Still, the result was predictable, and we can only hope that grudges don’t linger.
If I may repeat an earlier criticism, I’m still bothered by the complete lack of comment by the Councilors over their initial votes. Some said the candidates were all lovely, but never went any further. On a certain level, this is true; both Sipress and Heltzer are well-qualified, and there are few, if any, ideological differences between them (or between them and the rest of the Councilors, save Councilor Fosle). But reading between the lines, it was pretty clear there were large gaps between the Sipress camp and the Heltzer camp, and that each group was hardened into their voting bloc. No one ever explained why, which leaves the rest of us guessing or relying on rumors. This makes everything seem rather catty; a case of Minnesota Nice at its worst. There’s a fine balance to be found here, of course; we don’t want open warfare on the Council either. But there is plenty of room for tactful comments that might help lessen the claims of politics somewhat. If there were deeper divisions here than were obvious, the public deserves at least some knowledge of them.
With some reservations, I can accept the results of the meeting. This conclusion is more a practical one than anything; I don’t see how any effort to open it back up again would bring about any sort of resolution. Four Councilors were not going to budge from their support for Sipress even if the Council had re-opened debate, and dragging this out any longer only would have opened up further opportunities for ugliness. It’s a crude tiebreaking method, and I agree that some of the arguments for moving on are a bit thin, but I do worry about the precedent of removing a Councilor appointed via resolution by reconsideration of said resolution. For good or ill, the Council sealed its fate when no one objected to the initial interpretation of RCV, and once they’d seated Sipress, going back to remove him would have only compounded the issue. It was important to acknowledge the error, but sometimes one has to cut one’s losses rather than carry on with an obviously flawed process in the desperate hope that things might somehow work out.
At any rate, Councilor Sipress is now safely ensconced in the Council, and can go about his work. It’s time for Duluth to get to know him; ultimately, it will be up to his constituents to judge him. It is time to move forward, beginning with the much-needed push to amend the city charter to allow for a special election in future circumstances such as this one.