Building Trails to West Duluth and Also Iraq: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/14/14

The City Council Chamber was a bustling place on Monday night, with a full house in the audience and a wide variety of issues on the table. A Boy Scout troop led the hall in the Pledge of Allegiance, and many of the usual suspects made their way to the podium before the night was over.

The meeting opened with a pair of public hearings, both of which, surprisingly enough, actually had speakers. Four people all somehow involved in the project spoke in support of the tax increment financing (TIF) district for the former Lincoln Park School, reiterating the importance of city support in subsidizing low-income housing and space for use by local nonprofits. (The resolution supporting this project passed unanimously, with the only discussion being a failed joke by Councilor Hanson about Councilor Filipovich’s golf skills.) The second hearing dealt with the assessments for street repair made in the Morley Heights neighborhood, and the speaker demanded answers on why he’d been charged for something he thought should have already been covered in his taxes, and why he’d been charged when he didn’t live on one of the repaired streets. CAO Montgomery gave him a general history of assessments in the city and explained that halves of blocks beyond a repaired street were also subject to a smaller tax burden so as to spread the costs.

Three of the four general citizen speakers were familiar faces. Ms. Linda Ross Sellner resumed her campaign against the heavy use of road salt, Mr. Loren Martell returned to his anti-Red Plan soapbox, and Ms. Alison Clarke kept up the pressure on the Beacon Pointe Lakewalk extension. The final speaker was a unique one, though, as Mr. Paul Thornton, having just survived his first Duluth winter, bemoaned the lack of indoor recreation facilities for children. He announced the launch of a campaign to bring a play area to Miller Hill Mall as a possible cabin fever reliever. In case anyone needed a reminder of how stir-crazy young children can be, his young daughter helped his case immensely by bouncing up and down around the podium in her tiara and dress, tugging at her father’s arm. Mr. Thornton will seek sponsors for the play area, and his campaign’s Facebook page can be found here.

After the passage of the consent agenda and the usual Councilor Fosle protest vote against a new vehicle purchase, the Council moved on to discussion of establishing a Sister City relationship with Rania, a city in the Kurdistan province of Iraq. Three speakers came forward to plug the arrangement, and many of the Councilors spoke highly of bridging gaps between people and learning of common humanity. (Having hosted several visitors from current sister cities, Councilor Russ cracked that “fifteen year old boys are fifteen year old boys no matter where they’re from. They want to be where the girls are.”) Councilor Russ, who has long been involved with the Sister Cities Commission, emphasized the grassroots push to build ties with Rania and numerous delegations that have gone back and forth over the years; there was also much congratulation of Ms. Michele Naar-Obed for her work in bringing the partnership to fruition. The measure’s unanimous passage was greeted by cheering (lightly chided by President Krug) and Iraqi flag-waving (happily endorsed by President Krug).

The longest debate of the evening involved the plans for the cross-city trail. At the beginning of the evening, CAO Montgomery explained that the portions up for vote at the meeting did not relate to the contentious routing through the Irving Park neighborhood near the NewPage paper mill. He agreed the existing plan was “problematic,” said the city was close to an arrangement with NewPage and the Department of Transportation to avoid routing the trail through the Central Avenue interchange, and that there would be further discussion with the neighbors on the route through the neighborhood itself. Councilor Fosle, a critic of the existing plan, then moved to formally send that resolution back to the administration.

The first discussion involved the purchase of some land from the BNSF railway near Wade Stadium to allow access from the stadium parking lot to the trail. CAO Montgomery shared the backstory on the project, but Councilor Fosle remained unconvinced the sale was necessary when nearby 35th Avenue West would likely serve the necessary purpose. Councilor Sipress asked whether it might make sense to explore a cheaper alternative, and when informed there was no pressing deadline, the Council moved to table the issue, and did so 8-1, with President Krug being the lone dissenter.

After citizen speaker Dick Haney (a familiar face from school board meetings) emphasized the importance of the cross-city trail for a healthy city, the Council took up the acceptance of a grant for Phase II of the trail, the portion between 24th and 37th Avenues West. Once again, Councilor Fosle had objections; he bemoaned the city’s inability to secure the entire old BNSF rail bed for the project, and complained that the new plan instead went down Superior Street and took away parking and land from businesses (including his own employer, the school district’s bus repair facility). He did not find the new route particularly safe, and figured that if it went down city streets, it might as well go through the Grand Avenue business district. He asked if the current design was locked in if the Council accepted the grant, to which CAO Montgomery replied with a ‘no.’ This was enough to satisfy the rest of the Council, with Councilors Sipress and Larson saying they’d be happy to look through some of Councilor Fosle’s concerns in the future. Councilor Fosle then complained about a lack of public input, which brought about strong pushback from CAO Montgomery and several other Councilors; Councilor Fosle apologized for his absolutism, but insisted there was room for better communication, and tried to ask when a plan had to be submitted. President Krug, however, had tired of his questions, and cut him off amid grumbles about the second-guessing of the city’s engineering staff. The resolution passed 8-1.

Two other items on the table got some press via Councilor Julsrud, who explained their benefits to the city. The first accepted a grant to start a biomass project at the city steam plant, which will use sawdust to drastically reduce the plant’s coal dependence. The second gave the city broader authority to use criteria other than price in the awarding of contracts, which will, ideally, allow the city to vet contractors to make sure they actually do their jobs well, instead of just cheaply. (This had been a problem in the Glenwood Street redesign in Lakeside.) Councilor Filipovich also took some time to explain a property sale that will allow the Port Authority to accept a $10 million redevelopment grant for Rices Point. All three passed unanimously.

There were several updates on Council open issues and closing comments. Councilor Gardner said her committee was “very close to consensus” on its City Charter amendment for Council appointments, while Councilor Larson said her trails damage ordinance will be along at the next meeting. She also plugged the “One Book, One Community” library program, while Councilor Fosle grumbled about being cut off, and Councilor Filipovich reminded everyone to get their taxes done. After a hectic two hours, the Council wrapped up its business, and the five people who’d survived the whole meeting packed up their notebooks and Iraqi flags and headed for the exits—exits now mercifully free of snow and Christmas reindeer, though the forecast for Wednesday already has me on my hands and knees. Someday, Duluth, spring will come, and maybe some cross-city trail plans that everyone can agree on will come along with it.


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