Hooray for Being Boring: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/26/13

It was an oppressively hot and humid Monday night in Duluth, with several of the audience members huddled up against the windows in search of cold air, and an impressive lightning show flickering away over the darkened harbor. But neither heat nor storms could deter the Duluth City Council from tireless debate over servicing street debt, and after draping themselves over the drinking fountain to prepare themselves, President Boyle brought down his gavel and sent the Councilors off on their marathon.

As usual, community speakers led off the meeting, and there were only two signed up, though one brought his “little elves” with him. Mr. Jeff Mass of the Duluth Children’s Museum was joined at the podium by middle-schoolers Garrett and Jenna, who told the Council about their studies of outer space, which will culminate in a ten-minute radio chat with the astronauts in the International Space Station next week. (Exact time and date TBD; their pretty flyer tells us to check the Children’s Museum website for updates.) The only other speaker, Linda Ross Sellner, wanted a clarification on some road salt purchases, which led the Council to pull the resolution from the consent agenda so that an apparent typo in the agenda could be corrected.

After that it was on to the main event of the evening, the discussion of a resolution that would service $2.23 million in street improvement bond debt via money from the Community Investment Trust (CIT). As CAO Montgomery and Councilor Gardner explained, the city had 3 options to service the debt:

1. Take the money from the general reserve fund, which might jeopardize the city’s credit rating;

2. Raise the tax levy, effectively doubling street-assessed taxes in the city;

3. Take the money from the CIT, which would prevent a tax increase and be less of a threat to the credit rating.

CAO Montgomery thus suggested that Option 3, while not ideal, was the best choice on the table; Councilors Gardner, Julsrud, Hartman, Larson, and Krug all voiced their agreement in similar terms. Taking money from the CIT, however, requires a 7-2 supermajority, and with Councilors Fosle and Stauber raising serious doubts, it became clear that Councilor Krause would be the deciding vote.

Councilor Krause admitted to being “torn” on the issue. His reservations, which were repeated by Councilors Fosle and Stauber, revolved around the city’s frequent forays into the CIT despite claims that it wouldn’t take any more money from it. He was “surprised” and “frustrated” that this had come before the Council just a year after being told the city would find a long-term fix. CAO Montgomery countered that the city’s new, pay-as-you-go street funding plan would, eventually, take this issue off the table. Councilor Stauber replied by saying that the city is still has serious unfunded debts (mostly in pensions) and is also spending money on things such as trails; even if they aren’t accruing more street debts, their approach is not totally “pay-as-you-go,” and debt will continue to be an issue.

Councilor Krug said that all of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” out of the Councilors griping about past funding issues was “useless,” while Councilor Larson asked what realistic alternative they might propose. Councilor Fosle, more on-target than last meeting in his critiques, went back to his favorite hobbyhorse and proposed savings in vehicle maintenance; Councilor Stauber said he’d proposed a street bill that had been shunted aside, but CAO Montgomery argued parts of his proposal “would not apply.” He also disagreed with Councilor Stauber’s suggestion that the general fund had been built up by taking money from the CIT; while technically true, the funds had arrived there in a round-about way. Councilor Fosle wrapped up the hour-long discussion by saying he thought the mayor’s office, and not the Council, should be working on the street plan to resolve the issue for good.

In the end, Councilor Krause decided to vote ‘no,’ and the measure failed, with only six votes in favor. President Boyle asked CAO Montgomery what came next, and he responded by saying Administration would likely push to take the money from the general reserve fund at the next board meeting. The city does have a potential white knight in this whole affair, however: at some time in the next month, a federal court will rule on ongoing litigation between the city and the Fon Du Luth Casino, and should the city win, the $12 million settlement will easily cover the debt. While CAO Montgomery made it clear they cannot count on a positive result, the entire council was likely left hoping for a swift ruling from the courts.

Next up was the authorization of bonds to pay for the Lakewalk expansion, and Councilors Fosle, Stauber, and Krause once again held the line on further spending. Councilor Fosle grumbled about wants versus needs, while Councilor Julsrud reminded the Council that over half the project was being paid for in grant money. A simple 6-3 majority passed the ordinance, and a related second ordinance was tabled.

Several resolutions were then read for the first time, and though there was no voting on the issue, there were two speakers on a trio of proposals amending the city code on the matter of electronic cigarettes. Mr. Brian Annis, a longtime smoker who had weaned himself off tobacco by using e-cigs, told of his failed past attempts to quit, and how his conversion had inspired other smokers to switch over to the healthier alternative. He’d clearly done his research, and the Councilors were swift to invite him to an agenda session, as they had not had any defenders of e-cigs at the Committee of the Whole meeting earlier that day. Ms. Jill Doberstein of the American Lung Association countered his claims by saying electronic cigarettes “normalize” smoking, and that their use is often recreational instead of being a means of quitting. She demanded consistency from the Council in its regulation of smoking products.

The Council concluded its formal business by passing two more ordinances without debate: an amendment of city fine fees (opposed only by Councilor Krause), and a zoning change (approved unanimously). In the closing comments, Councilor Larson reminded the city of Food Truck Fridays at the public library, while Councilor Krause asked someone to look into the heavy attire facilities maintenance workers are forced to wear even in the worst summer heat. Councilor Stauber asked if a biennial actuarial study of unfunded liabilities was under way, which it was, and Councilor Hartman took a moment to thank his colleagues for the policy-driven debate about the CIT fund, even though he was unhappy with the result. He admitted it was probably “very boring for the general public,” but he had an excellent point: instead of endless “theatrics,” the Council really had gone to the heart of the issue, and in government, the boring debates often are the most productive. While the nuttiness of a Duluth School Board meeting may be more interesting to those of us trying to endure 90-degree meeting chambers, the Council continues to quietly inspire confidence, and in such a climate, the minority view may even have a better chance to win out—as Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle showed tonight. Whatever one thinks of their vote, that is an encouraging thought.

Art in the Schools: Duluth School Board Notes, 7/16/13

The Duluth School Board packed into the board room on Tuesday evening, joined by a modest but quiet crowd. With a heat wave sweeping Duluth (to the extent that any heat wave ever sweeps through Duluth), only Member Miernicki wore a suit and tie; Member Kasper apologized for the Board’s casual attire during a photo-op with a Duluth East student who had done well at the National History Day competition. One of the Student Members was absent, as was Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose place on the dais was taken by Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford. But Member Art Johnston was on hand, guaranteeing the audience a few fireworks as the night went on.

Once again, the fun began during the approval of the minutes from the previous meeting. Member Johnston complained his motion to offer a completely different budget was not in the minutes, which was a violation of district bylaws. This time around, the other members fired back. Member Seliga-Punyko said that, as had been explained to Member Johnston “several dozen times” over the past few years, a motion that does not receive a second simply dies, and does not need to be recorded. She cited Robert’s Rules of Order and the opinion of district legal counsel, and finished her salvo by noting that a Board member was wearing illegal campaign material.

Member Johnston, who had an “Art Johnston for School Board” shirt peeking out from beneath his Hawaiian shirt, invited Member Seliga-Punyko to call in the police to arrest him, as she had threatened to do several years earlier; it “would be exciting,” he told the crowd. He reiterated his point about the bylaws, to which Member Kasper attempted to reply by citing the opinion of Superintendent Gronseth, Business Services Director Bill Hansen, and legal counsel. Member Johnston huffed that these people were “not parliamentarians,” but voted to approve the minutes anyway.

During the time for public comments, Member Miernicki stepped down off the dais and addressed the Board as a community member in order to thank the late County Commissioner Steve O’Neil for his service to Duluth schools. O’Neil, who passed away on Monday after a battle with cancer, was a passionate community activist who had done tireless work to help Duluth students who lacked basic needs. Ms. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, a candidate in the upcoming election, thanked the school board for its community input meetings on school planning issues, and Mr. Dick Haney, a former teacher and physical wellness advocate, urged the Board to approve a trail easement across the campus of the shuttered Duluth Central High School.

The first topic to invite much debate was the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan, a long-range vision to improve district-wide academic achievement, school safety, and efficiency. Member Seliga-Punyko emphasized the importance of elementary school specialists and the arts in the Plan, which led Member Kasper to crack that he was glad she supported “Art” in the schools, giving Member Johnston a good laugh. For his part, Member Johnston said he supported the plan, though he had three concerns: he wanted to know why the Plan was on the District website and in the media before it had been passed; he wanted to add goals to reverse enrollment declines; and he wanted a plan to restore the balance of the district’s depleted general fund. Member Miernicki answered the first point to Member Johnston’s satisfaction, arguing that media coverage and web presence was necessary to bring in the community input the District desired. Member Wasson echoed this theme and also pushed back on the enrollment goal, noting that most every school district in Minnesota is shedding students. In a cautionary note semi-subtly directed at Member Johnston, she also said that “negativity” around the Board would be a problem in implementing a plan they all agreed was necessary. Member Johnston earnestly explained that he was not being negative by voicing a few concerns, and the Plan passed unanimously.

During the Human Resources Committee’s resolutions, a motion came up to rescind the layoff of a single teacher. Member Johnston, rather understandably confused by the wording of the resolution, thought it was an effort to cut the position, and Member Kasper hurriedly tried to correct him. HR Director Tim Sworsky clarified the wording, and Member Johnston grumbled about its confusing nature before voting to support the re-hiring.

Next up was the Business Committee report, which included the easement to create a trail across the old Central property. While all were supportive of the idea (aside from some mild worry about wetlands from Member Johnston that he figured could be worked out), Member Wasson motioned to table the vote until they could have more feedback from Mr. Kerry Leider of Facilities Management. The Board Members then spent a while agreeing with each other in their wishes for clarifications on the unsold site’s zoning, and Mr. Leider said he believed their concerns would be met. Member Johnston had some concern that delays would hinder any construction on the project this year, though he also admitted he wasn’t sure any real progress this year was realistic anyway. The Board tabled the measure 6-0, with Member Johnston abstaining.

When it came time to approve the entire Business Committee Report, Member Johnston singled out a series of measures for separate votes, all of which he supported, leading them to pass unanimously. This left him free to vote against the remainder of the report, which included several change orders (which he had criticized at the June meeting), though he did not belabor his point this time around. His maneuvering allowed him to hold his line on facilities spending while also voting to support various fundraisers, investments, insurance policies, and a community collaborative project. The Members then wrapped up a meeting that, aside from the spat over the minutes at the start, appeared more constructive than the previous month’s, albeit with a less controversial agenda on their plate.

Tuesday was also the filing deadline for this fall’s School Board elections, which will feature a lot of familiar faces. While Members Cameron, Kasper, and Wasson are headed for retirement, former Members Nancy Nilsen and Harry Welty are throwing their names back into the fray for the two open at-large seats. Member Johnston will pursue re-election, though he faces two challengers in his western Duluth district. Two of Member Johnston’s most loyal lieutenants, Ms. Marcia Stromgren and Mr. Loren Martell (both surprisingly absent from Tuesday’s meeting), are back on the ballot after failed past runs. (Mr. Welty is also a member of the old anti-Red Plan crowd, though I consider him a more complex figure than single-issue candidates like Ms. Stromgren and Mr. Martell.) With the District’s operating levy also on the ballot, the election should prove an interesting referendum on the work of the past few Boards.

Case Studies in Conservatism

Much like “liberalism,” the word “conservatism” has come to mean any number of things, and most of the time is used as code for “things I agree with” or “things I disagree with,” depending on one’s political ideology. Here, I’m going to use an old definition of “conservatism” that is not always followed closely by self-described conservatives: essentially, a conservative believes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and is skeptical of (but not always opposed to) government action. While I don’t always agree with their critiques, I do think they are important voices in government, which otherwise tends to attract devoted public servants who are excited to do good for their constituents, often to the point that they start throwing money about so freely that they run out of it, or regulate things to such an extent that law becomes unintelligible to most people (if not contradictory or unenforceable). Every political body needs at least one sober, perhaps cynical voice to, in the words of Bill Buckley, “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” This is especially true in a city like Duluth, which does not have a shortage of well-intentioned people in government.

The problem with this conservatism is that people usually say a lot more than just “stop,” and their attempts to rationalize their opinions can make all the difference. Take the case of two local politicians who show the best and the worst sides of the conservative mindset.

At the Duluth City Council meeting this past Monday, I witnessed a clinic in compelling local government conservatism. Councilor Garry Krause voted against the grain on every contentious issue before the Council, and in several cases took the time to explain exactly why he voted the way he did not support added regulation or new development. Councilor Krause was concise, stated his principles, listed examples of negative ramifications of Council meddling, and had a knack for pithy lines that summed up his arguments. Though he disagreed with his colleagues, he remained congenial (in public, at least), and the other councilors often made an effort to respond to his critiques. They seemed to respect one another, and Krause showed a willingness to work with the other Councilors when they do find some common ground. His perspective seems to understand the world is a very complicated place, but he knows where he stands within it, and looks to carve out a niche that leaves his conscience comfortable at the end of the day. While his frequent partner in dissent, Councilor Jay Fosle, comes off as a loose cannon who picks his battles (and his words) haphazardly, Krause manages to be a man of conviction without putting on any airs of self-righteousness.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find people like the Member Art Johnston of the Duluth School Board. Like Krause, Johnston is a reasonably effective public speaker who can put together a solid sound bite. He is also not a dumb man, as evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge of District bylaws and procedures, and by his careful consideration of issues on which his anti-Long Range Facilities Plan ideological framework does not have much to say. Even his greatest critics would never deny that he is true to his principles.

Yet Johnston is no Krause. He evinces self-righteousness and resentment par excellence. He is disruptive, holding up such routine processes as the approval of meeting minutes. He votes against practically everything before the Board even when those votes serve zero practical purpose, largely to keep up his ideological consistency. His relentless attacks have so alienated the rest of the Board that they only rarely acknowledge his presence, and simply work past him instead of working with him. Whatever his broader political views may be (and I have no idea what they are), his style is reminiscent of some Tea Party politicians: it is virulent, hard-line, and takes no prisoners. As I left the building after the meeting, I overheard him telling a companion, “I don’t know what’s wrong with those people. Actually, I do.” Whatever it was that he understood or did not understand about “those people” (a phrase that immediately sets off alarm bells in my head), his world is clearly one of rigid, Manichean distinctions.

The easy conclusion to this piece would be “Krause good, Johnston bad,” and to say the world needs more conservatives like the former, and fewer like the latter. Reality, unfortunately, is not that simple. Taking the time to develop a complex view of the world while also balancing that with a few core principles is not easy, and is not a trait found in many politicians, who are usually rewarded at the ballot box for taking firm stances. Voters don’t always appreciate nuance.

Furthermore, telling history to stop is a very difficult thing. Both Krause and Johnston hardly ever win. And when one never wins, it is easy to understand the allure of a Johnston, who at least makes the world well-aware of his presence. For all his faults, Johnston has a committed following, and a few of his supporters still come forward to thank him at the end of every meeting. Krause, on the other hand, has no fan club. As he himself noted at last week’s meeting, he is, effectively, the defender of the “mundane and boring.” And when one is not viciously screaming at the opposition, it is not hard for other committed conservatives to see one as too compliant, too much of a loyal opposition, leaving the principled conservative with very few allies. Thus the Garry Krauses of the world face a dilemma: do they sell their souls and join the Art Johnstons, going down screaming? Or do they stay true to basic standards of decorum and fight only the necessary battles, praying the voters will recognize their efforts? It is not too hard to see some immediate parallels between this debate and one of the key rifts in today’s Republican Party.

I’ve set up two ideal types here, and it’s worth noting that they didn’t emerge out of vacuums. At present, the Duluth City Council seems to be a fairly agreeable body, and while it makes its mistakes and may have a certain groupthink to it, it usually manages a constructive conversation. Within the confines of its mission and realistic standards, it is an effective body. The School Board, on the other hand, is still in the shadow of an extremely divisive school restructuring plan, and its culture remains poisoned by a near-existential war. It is easy to dismiss Johnston’s motives as sheer resentment, but his views had to be honed and hardened by something. It is the responsibility of the non-conservatives to understand his mindset, and not in a simplistic way that is just as black-and-white as Johnston’s worldview. The same is true at the national level: it is unfortunate that Washington can barely manage civil discourse anymore, but there are underlying cultural reasons for the breakdown in civility, and there is plenty of blame to be spread around on that front. No one is innocent.