Lurching Toward a Lakewalk: Duluth City Council Notes, 1/27/14

While much of the city shut down in the bitter cold, the beat went on in the Council Chamber this week. The crowd was fairly sparse but spirited—the clerk deputized me to close the doors on people chattering in the hall at one point—and there was also an empty seat at one end of the dais, as Councilor Boyle had tendered his resignation following his victory in the special election for a seat on the County Board. Boyle was suffering from a case of the flu and thus unable to say a proper goodbye, though President Krug said she’d invite him to do so at a later date.

In the opening comments, Councilor Gardner talked of her resolution to streamline the process to find his appointment, a necessary step following last fall’s botched effort to fill the seat of outgoing Councilor Garry Krause. She established a timeline: the deadline for applications is this Friday (Jan. 31) at 4:30; there will be interviews of February 6; Councilors will choose three finalists by February 7; the Council will interview them on the 10th; and they will then vote on the Councilor at a special meeting that same day. She also informed the public that no one has applied for the spot yet, so if you live in Congdon, around the UMD campus, or in Kenwood, your odds might be pretty good if you’re interested.

The consent agenda passed unanimously. The next three votes, all involving smallish sums of money for such items as the Sister Cities program and the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Rail Alliance, and an office design, passed without debate. Councilor Fosle opposed all three, and Councilor Julsrud joined him on the rail alliance. Councilor Gardner’s process to fill the vacant 2nd District seat passed unanimously after a few minor procedural questions, and a move to bestow landmark status on the Chester Park United Methodist Church, planned for reuse as a dance studio, passed unanimously.

Next up was the main event of the evening, a resolution authorizing a grant application for the completion of the Lakewalk between 21st and 23rd Aves. East. (This is the stretch between the parking lot at the east end of the Lakewalk and its resumption at the corner of 23rd and Water St., in front of the Beacon Pointe development.) The measure, pushed by the administration, would create a Lakewalk on the north side of Water Street opposite Beacon Pointe. There were four citizen speakers, two for and two against. The supporters were with the Friends of the Lakewalk organization, and cited safety concerns with heavy trail-use traffic on Water St. and a survey of their twenty members that indicated widespread support. The two opponents reminded Councilors that the plan for the cross-city trail had insisted upon a trail along the lakefront, not a street separated from the lake by a row of condos, and suspected a bait-and-switch. They recommended the tabling of the measure.

CAO Montgomery opened the discussion by saying that tabling would effectively kill the bill, as the city would miss the grant application deadline. This was enough to sway Councilor Julsrud toward support, and she said the city could always reject the grant if it later decided it didn’t like the plan. Councilor Gardner, on the other hand, was not at all swayed. She was especially worried by the Second District vacancy on the Council; as this part of the Lakewalk goes that district, residents’ voices were perhaps unheard. Councilor Russ agreed, saying “something went terribly wrong” in the process; she complained of the developers’ apparent encroachment on the lakefront, the lack of quality signage, and said the new proposal was “really just widening the sidewalk,” and would do nothing to keep bicyclists off the road. Councilor Filipovich echoed these general sentiments and added that there would be more opportunities to ask for money later; CAO Montgomery said the city couldn’t rely on future federal grants, while Councilor Gardner said there certainly would be future opportunities.

Councilor Larson and President Krug, on the other hand, expressed support. They thought any safety-improving measure was commendable and cited the Lakeside neighborhood Lakewalk as an example of a successful path away from the lakeshore. Councilor Gardner, after pausing to stare down the whispering Councilors Hanson and Julsrud, reiterated many of her critiques, called the whole process “very disturbing,” and questioned the current composition of the Friends of the Lakewalk. Councilor Fosle, meanwhile, shared some history with the rest of the Council, digging up resolutions from 2007 and 2008 establishing the initial intent to both widen the Water St. sidewalk and build a trail along the lakefront. Councilor Filipovich worried about a possible loss of political will for the lakefront trail if the Council were to pass only the sidewalk portion. “There’s a lot of despair already,” Councilor Gardner agreed, and both she and Councilor Filipovich wondered why the administration was pushing this during the week of the deadline.

As it became clear the Council did not have the votes to pass the measure, the reason behind the whisperings of Councilors Julsrud and Hanson came out, as they introduced an amendment to reassert the intent behind the original 2007 and 2008 resolutions. There was then a very long stretch of confused but ultimately productive wrangling, as the Councilors offered different wordings for the amendment and even toyed with waiting until a later date to clarify their intent so as to not be too “sloppy,” in the words of Councilor Larson. Councilor Gardner expressed qualified support for the amendment, and they finally settled on three points, as laid out by Councilor Hanson: a reaffirmation of the 2007 and 2008 resolutions, a public meeting to discuss the plan, and a commitment to “concurrently” find solutions to the situation. “We’re finally going to vote on something!” President Krug celebrated, and the amendment passed, 7-1, with Councilor Fosle in opposition.

After that the Council moved to consider the resolution proper, and Councilor Fosle explained his opposition: these sorts of promises are easily forgotten—the 07 and 08 resolutions would have been, had he himself not gone and dug them up earlier that day—and may come to nothing. He was also the lone vote against the resolution, which passed, 7-1.

The rest of the agenda passed relatively quickly. Councilor Fosle was the lone vote against a change in street and sidewalk obstruction fees, and was joined by Councilor Julsrud in a protest vote against Armory culvert repair (see here for the original details on this debate). Councilor Fosle amended a resolution that accepted a grant for emerald ash borer testing in Duluth trees to clean up its misleading language, and also celebrated the timing of a water utility improvement project; both passed unanimously. Councilor Gardner got a good laugh with her shock at the fact that the city was paying for the added costs of the harsh winter with excess revenue (“We have excess revenue?!”), and Councilor Hanson was pleased to hear these measures would have no appreciable impact on the general fund. Finally, the Council pushed back the months for its sprinkling credit to May through September, with Councilor Russ laughing that the city may as well start the credit in June, what with the weather Duluth has had lately.

It was an efficient night for the Council outside of the Lakewalk debate, and even there, they got things done after some spirited debate. There were powerful criticisms, a decent defense, and, ultimately, a sensible compromise. Even Councilor Fosle, who was having none of the whole affair, deserves praise for dispassionately providing information for everyone else, and reiterating the worry about political will. The Councilors who opposed the resolution as initially written must keep up the pressure to make sure the lakefront path isn’t lost in the shuffle, but if they do, there is a good chance the initial vision for the Lakewalk will still come to fruition. As Councilor Hanson said, they need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto

Disclaimer: when I launched this blog, I used its first post to say it wasn’t my intent to make this thing a call to arms for any particular cause. Today, I’m going to violate that principle for a cause that is, I believe, worthwhile. I’m going to do what little I can do to get the voters of ISD 709 to pass the operating levy that will be on the ballot this November.

Two of the biggest levy proponents out there are ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at-large school board candidate Harry Welty. I don’t really know either of them personally, though I sometimes read Welty’s blog and had a mini-dialogue with him last week, and Gronseth was the assistant principal at my high school once upon a time. But while both men have the same goal and seem to respect one another on some level, they are coming from radically different places.

Gronseth’s PR campaign for the levy has been relentlessly positive. A gaudy handout touting all the successes of ISD 709 came out in a recent Duluth News Tribune, and if you read it, you’d think there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the District. At Board meetings, Gronseth will acknowledge challenges, but will quickly try to turn them into opportunities for improvement, insisting the District is on the right path. I don’t think this is some cynical spin operation: Gronseth genuinely believes he can help guide this District to a better place, and that sort of positive message can be a real asset to a District trying to move past a divisive era. His pitch attempts to show the voters of Duluth that the District is moving past the Red Plan rancor, and that voters can have confidence in its administrators to keep the momentum going.

Welty, on the other hand, sees a rather different picture when he looks at ISD 709. His blog collects plenty of horror stories of troubles that afflict the District: a paltry general fund, sagging graduation and enrollment rates, a glaring achievement gap, classes with over 40 students, and anarchic west side schools. His campaign theme is “honesty,” which for him involves acknowledging everything that is wrong with the District, and then confronting it head-on. Without the levy, he argues, it will be near-impossible to do so. There is no scenario in which “starving the beast” leads to more sensible financial policy, and should the levy fail, the task of trying to build a decent District will take a herculean effort.

Both of them are part right and part wrong. Gronseth is right to see some real positives: for all of the turmoil, the test scores and post-secondary success of kids from the east side schools remain strong, and the recent turnaround at Laura Macarthur Elementary proves that demography need not be destiny, and that west side schools can succeed with strong leadership and innovative teaching. Having seen some truly dysfunctional public schools during my time in Washington DC, I can assure Duluth that its schools still have a long way to fall before they’re a total train wreck. But at the same time, Welty’s worries can’t just be swept under the rug; his concerns don’t come from nowhere, and as I argued last week, a longtime critic like him might be able to reach out to voters who are otherwise jaded with the District.

There are drawbacks to each man’s approach. Gronseth’s shiny packaging could easily come across as untrustworthy spin tactics, especially for voters who think the District took them for a ride with the Red Plan.  His unqualified optimism can appear naïve, and perhaps ignorant of the unfortunate but very real divisions that have sprung up over the past few years. Welty’s use of the sinking ship metaphor runs some risk of making the whole thing sound like a lost cause, especially as he repeats stories of struggling classrooms and announces his sympathies for voters who won’t support the levy under any circumstances. Both Gronseth and Welty are on to something, but neither one quite paints a complete picture.

You know what I would love to see? These two men go door-knocking together in support of the levy. It’s a naïve wish, perhaps, but these two men really do need each other. It will be hard to put a positive spin on Gronseth’s stint as Superintendent if the levy fails, and Welty has said quite clearly that his job will be a miserable one if he’s on a Board that has to make deep cuts.

There are risks for each of them. Gronseth has to admit that not everything is quite right, and while he’s done a good job of inviting citizens to learn about the levy and made himself available to speak to groups, this is a rather self-selecting approach; he’d have to go out there and meet face-to-face with people who do not like what he stands for. Welty might alienate his old Let Duluth Vote base, which includes (though is necessarily not limited to) a bunch of people who hate the notion of working with the Board so recently after the Red Plan was rammed through.

Still, if we take both men at their word (and I do), the risks are worth the potential rewards. Gronseth could prove he believes in community engagement in the fullest sense of the term, not just inside a pro-education echo chamber. Welty would show just how much he believes the good of the schools transcends any past divisions, even if it comes at some risk for his political career.

It would have been a real coup for ISD 709 if Art Johnston would have been willing to join this sort of effort. I had my criticisms of Johnston before he came out against the levy, but they had more to do with style than substance: I think he is a legitimate representative of a portion of the community that is understandably upset with the Board, and there is something to be said for holding true to one’s convictions. In the moments when Board debate ranges away from Red Plan affairs, he has come across as a well-informed, thoughtful man who raises some real questions. His stint on the School Board had real potential, and for a moment at the August meeting, when he found it within himself to praise Gronseth for putting the levy to a vote and noted how significant it was that the two of them had found common ground, I thought he might yet fulfill that promise. He could have transcended the pettiness of some of his critics, and such an act of humility might have bought him some good will in the eyes of other Board members, leading him to perhaps actually pass a thing or two. He could have even upped his odds for re-election, as he would’ve had an answer to the biggest criticism thrown at him: that he is too intractable, too zealous in his pursuit of purity, too willing to alienate people who were willing to work with him if only he’d concede a tiny bit of ground. (And I’m not just talking about Gronseth here; I’m talking about people like Welty and Loren Martell, with whom he has plenty of views in common.) Alas, Johnston has allowed his distaste for some small tax increases to overpower any desire to work with others, even though (according to Tom Kasper) he once thought those taxes might be necessary evils in order to stabilize the district’s general fund. Looking at the likely composition of the next School Board, he is doomed to remain a voice in the wilderness, even if he is re-elected and the levy fails. He will have been proven correct, but is that really any consolation to a man who truly does care about the fate of the schools?

So, there is my plea to the individuals most able to sway voters to the ‘yes’ side of the levy, if they so choose. Let’s see some real leadership here. I’ll try to do my part. I’m going to write a letter to the News Tribune that will make my pitch for the levy the only way I know how, with a story of my love for the schools that gave me a world-class education, and my sincere wish that, should I someday raise a family here, my children can have as good a time in Duluth public schools as I did, if not a better one. I’m going to email this post to Gronseth and Welty, and even Johnston. (What do I have to lose?) I want to believe in Duluth’s future. Is anyone with me?