Holistic Government: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/21/14

21 Jul

It was a hot and sticky day in Duluth, but a decent crowd still made its way into the humid Council Chamber on Monday night. To kick off the proceedings, CAO Montgomery announced that all Council broadcasts are now closed-captioned, while Councilor Julsrud updated everyone on the Georgetown University Energy Prize, which will be awarded as part of a friendly competition between cities to reduce energy costs and change the culture around its consumption. (Hopefully having an illustrious alumnus in town will sway the committee.)

The Council began formal business with the host of resolutions that had been tabled the prior week, beginning with a move to again table the DECC casino plan. Next came the reappointment of several members of the Spirit Mountain board. Councilor Julsrud had held this one back because she’d originally had designs of splitting it up for votes on each individual, making good on her promise to “crack the whip” on Spirit Mountain’s financial management at a previous meeting. After further review, however, she declared herself confident in the “cultural shift” underway in Spirit’s leadership, and, after all four candidates got an endorsement from Spirit’s board chair, it passed unanimously.

Next up was the case of the Twins Bar, an East Hillside establishment whose liquor license was in danger due to excessive police calls and crime. Mr. Carl Green, who runs the bar, tried to plead his case, saying he’d already surrendered the license, disputing the number of police calls, charging racism, and threatening to sue. The Council, however, spoke with one voice, articulated by Councilors Gardner and Fosle: Mr. Green’s beef was not with the Council, which simply was there to authorize the “very clear” report from the Alcohol, Gambling, and Tobacco Comission. The Council meeting was “not a hearing,” Councilor Fosle explained, and Councilor Gardner spoke of the many complaints she’d received about the bar. The license was revoked unanimously.

Two Park Point residents spoke on the next resolution, which authorized St. Louis County to go forward with the sale of tax forfeit land on the Point. Both complained that past sales had been offered to the neighbors first; this one, which would sell the block-long properties in a single chunk, would like prove too expensive for residents and be snapped up by a developer. Councilor Gardner went to bat for them, drawing an explanation out of Mr. Mark Weber from the County as to the statutes surrounding the land. He was open to dividing the parcels, though this could be done at a later date; the Council, however, exercised caution, with Councilors Sipress and Fosle arguing in favor of tabling so as to allow further discussion and perhaps attach an amendment. It was tabled 8-1, with only Councilor Russ insisting on prompt action.

The longest debate of the night was about a plan to construct a city water main on 85th Avenue West, whose 13 houses are currently serviced by an often faulty private line. The whole process was a debacle: first there was grant money, then there wasn’t, then there was some for the 4 lowest-income households, and the city had to figure out how to assess the residents for the rest. CAO Montgomery recommended assessing everyone the same amount, since house tapped the water line once, while Councilor Fosle proposed an amendment that would instead charge by each property’s foot frontage on the street. There were six citizen speakers; four for the by-foot assessment, one for equal assessment, and one who appeared to oppose the plan entirely. Both sides agreed there was no good answer here, and people would feel jilted regardless; Councilor Fosle said that a majority got a somewhat better deal with his version. He’d done his due diligence and had figures ready for each household, which was enough to sway most of the Council; Councilor Julsrud was one of the few critics, and she came at it from a different direction, worrying that Councilor Fosle’s plan—which would require another return to the neighborhood for review—would only prolong an ugly process that had pitted neighbors against one another. It was a respectful and cautious debate in which established battle lines were irrelevant, and in the end the by-foot amendment passed 7-2, with Councilors Julsrud and Russ in opposition. The amended version then passed 8-1, with Councilor Julsrud as the lone ‘no.’

A discussion on the future of Hartley Nature Center also took a while. There were four citizen speakers, with three in favor and one railing against the disruption of habitat. Mr. Waylon Munch of the COGGS biking group talked about the compromise involved, and Hartley Nature Center Executive Director Tom O’Rourke spoke the importance of environmental education. While the group did not have an official representative at the meeting, he also noted the criticism of Hartley education programming sponsor Gender Matters, which objected to aspects of forest management and the possible restoration of Tischer Creek’s natural, un-dammed flowage.

When the Councilors took up the issue there was much bashing of the original redesign, which included paved trails and seemed to go way too far toward recreation. There was also much happy talk about experiences in Hartley, with Councilor Gardner reminiscing on going berry-picking in Hartley Field (when it was still called that) with her grandmother, Councilor Julsrud waxing about moonlight skis and getting in a Joni Mitchell reference, and President Krug saying that all of her experiences with Hartley involved getting lost. The Hartley Field reference showed how much the site has changed over the years, reminding everyone that humans are indeed a part of the natural habitat, too; Councilor Larson spoke of “stewardship” (an excellent word), and Councilor Sipress thanked people for speaking up and being passionate about parks so as to arrive at a plan most people liked. Councilor Fosle thanked the Hartley staff, and the resolution passed unanimously.

The final resolution on the agenda authorized a consultant to do a review on the main branch of the Duluth Public Library facility; as Councilor Larson explained, it has its issues, from a bad h-vac system to safety concerns to general architectural weirdness. She heartily endorsed the consultant, which pleased Councilors Gardner and Sipress after the criticism of the Hartley consultant; Councilor Julsrud went further than most in saying she wouldn’t mind seeing the thing torn down. Councilor Fosle alone thought the library had architectural merit, and while he supported the resolution, he did warn the Council that they were likely to get a “fancy book” asking them to spend lots of money they probably didn’t have on a redesign. It passed 9-0.

The Council pushed through its ordinances with some scattered debate but no serious disagreement. Matching funds for West Duluth tourism projects passed unanimously, while Councilor Fosle was happy to hear that a sewer-lining process was nearing its close. An ordinance eliminating the redundant posting of rental notices in owners’ homes also sailed through, and while Councilor Fosle wanted more answers and ultimately voted against the plan to annex a portion of Midway Township (mostly parkland), it passed without any other objections. At the end, Councilor Fosle thanked the Councilors and other city staffers for their support in recent weeks, as his granddaughter underwent surgery to remove a lobe in her lung. (After a minor complication, she appears to be fine.)

Despite it being a long night in a room without air conditioning, this was a model city council meeting. Sure, it probably helped that there weren’t any life-or-death issues up on Monday night, but there was an interesting array of topics, and each one got its due diligence. There was serious debate, but general agreement in the end, and on many of the measures the debate transcended the issue at hand and took up broader principles. And yet things remained very even-handed and respectful; it seemed like everyone there genuinely enjoyed their work, even when it was difficult. Both the populist impulse for citizen representation and an interest in intelligent planning from a distance were well-represented, and there was also refreshingly little politicking or grandstanding. This is how local government should work.

I would say it’s a very balanced council, but the word “balanced” has always struck me as a bit lame, aspiring for equity for equity’s sake instead of a higher aim. It is also far from being politically balanced, and the lack of obvious left-versus-right issues on Monday probably helped the good vibes. Instead, I might offer up the word “holistic”: there was a thoroughness to the Council’s work that is not often seen in government, with the varying perspectives and recognition of broader strains of thought, all coming together into something coherent. For one night, at least, the Council deserves a lot of credit, and they now have themselves a midsummer break to rest on their laurels and head out to the beach (where their trips will, hopefully, not be interrupted by a bunch of ugly, piss-yellow signs that have cropped up in some areas). They’ve earned it, but they’ll have to be back at it before too long, and they’ve set a high bar that they ought to aim for again and again.

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