Tag Archives: council vacancies

Loose Ends and Old Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/24/14

24 Feb

After two weeks of drama following its last regular meeting, the Duluth City Council had a tame night on Monday. The agenda was short, the crowd was light, and Councilor Sipress was happily settled into his new seat on the far end of the dais. The meeting opened with some mundane announcements, as President Krug plugged the State of the City address this coming Monday (6 PM, Spirit Mountain Chalet), and there were mentions of snow removal and the need to fill vacancies on the Human Rights Committee.

After the speakers (all repeat appearances) and the passage of the consent agenda, the Council moved on to a resolution of intent to amend the city charter in order to address Council vacancies. The resolution had no specifics, and simply established the four Councilors (Gardner, Hanson, Julsrud, Larson) who will take the lead on the effort to work with the charter commission. Councilor Russ had some issues with the vague language, but Councilor Gardner reassured her that there will be plenty of time to explore all options; she also suggested that, if feasible, any elections in off years should be held concurrent to state and national elections in November. Councilor Gardner reminded her colleagues that they needed nine votes to amend the charter, and invited everyone to bring forward ideas, while Councilor Filipovich urged caution and patience. Councilor Larson asked for a Committee of the Whole meeting on the process before the proposal is finalized, and Councilor Sipress reiterated the emphasis on the non-binding nature of the proposal. It passed 9-0, which Councilor Gardner called a “good start.”

Next up was a resolution for the purchase of a hydro-excavator, which is a machine that uses hot water to clear dirt around natural gas pipes without risking damage to the pipes. Councilor Fosle had pulled it because he figured the new Councilors hadn’t heard his spiel on vehicle purchases yet; as he has several times during his time on the Council, he cited his 30 years as a mechanic in declaring the repair costs of machines far too high, though he also added some cautious optimism about a new plan by the administration to review these costs. Councilors Julsrud and Filipovich talked up the job done by the city’s Public Works Department, while Councilor Gardner explained that all the depth of the frost this winter is part of the reason behind the number of breaks this year. President Krug asked CAO Montgomery for an update on Councilor Fosle’s request for a more thorough inventory, and was told that a fleet consulting firm will do an assessment on the city. An exchange between Councilor Russ and CAO Montgomery had CAO Montgomery explaining the criteria the city uses when deciding whether to repair a vehicle or purchase a new one. The resolution ultimately passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle providing the dissent.

The Council moved on to a resolution applying for a grant for the cross-city bike trail; as Councilor Larson explained, they had not received a grant they’d applied for last fall, which would have funded the trail through the lower parts of Enger Park. Councilor Fosle, maintaining his stance against trail funding, was the lone ‘no’ vote there. Two ordinances selling city property passed unanimously, as did a pair of permits for the new Duluth Transit Authority center on Michigan Street, though Councilor Hanson abstained from those two votes due to his business relationship with the DTA. The permits created a ramp and a skywalk, Councilor Gardner explained, and were unanimously approved by the Planning Commission.

Councilor Russ celebrated Duluth’s snow removal when compared to Minneapolis in the closing remarks, but most of that period was devoted to discussion of the Lakewalk extension plan that was on the table two meetings ago. CAO Montgomery explained that engineers were working on plans for both the paved Lakewalk along Water Street and a path along the lakefront, behind the Ledges and Beacon Pointe developments, as requested by the Council. Councilor Gardner shared her suspicions that the plan they produced would be cost-prohibitive, but figured the city would hammer out a more sensible plan in time. Councilor Hanson then had a lengthy back-and-forth with CAO Montgomery as he sorted out the details; he asked if there was a funding source, and was told that there was one in place, but the funds had been diverted during a budget crunch in 2007 and 2008, and restoring that funding would mean taking money from something else. There were also questions about some fencing in that area that may be on city property, though CAO Montgomery couldn’t provide a definitive answer on that front, and promised further updates in time.

It wasn’t a terribly exciting night, but the Council did take a much-needed first step toward cleaning up the process for filling Council vacancies, and tonight’s resolution laid the groundwork for a lot of debate in coming weeks. It was also good to see the Lakewalk issue revisited in a substantive way. After a brief departure, Duluth is back to Don Ness’s favorite type of government—boring government—and while I don’t always endorse that, it was a blessed relief this time around.

Sipress Retains Seat

20 Feb

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.

Questions on the Duluth’s 2nd District City Council Appointment

13 Feb

The Duluth City Council’s 2nd District vacancy drama took another twist on Wednesday night. It turns out that, according to FairVote Minnesota, the Council erred when it declared Joel Sipress the winner of the vote to fill the seat. The News-Tribune has the details here. I have a bunch of questions.

Joel Sipress took an oath of office. Isn’t that a binding action?

This is a procedural question, but it’s worth asking. Sipress said the right thing in the News Tribune article, and said he’d let the other eight Councilors decide his fate. But now that he’s actually part of the Council, can they legally do that? Without consulting the Charter, I would think that he’d need to resign his post for that to move forward. If this isn’t the case, that is a weird loophole: conceivably, the Council could revisit the appointment of a Councilor at any time, and on a whim. This isn’t like a decision to revisit some random resolution; it’s about a man who is, rightly or wrongly, a member of their Council now, and that leads into my next question.

Might not “revisiting the matter” only politicize it?

The two Councilors quoted in the DNT, it is worth noting, did not support Sipress. I trust their motives, and I would think most people would agree there was something deeply flawed with what happened on Monday. Still, if some of the Sipress supporters don’t think the matter should be revisited, it would be very easy for both sides to claim the other side is playing politics, rightly or wrongly. While it only takes a simple majority to revisit the issue, I would argue the Council needs at least 7 votes in favor of revisiting the appointment to legitimize the process. If there is concerted opposition to revisiting the matter, it will only make an ugly process look uglier.

If the Council revisits the appointment, how does it avoid ending up with the exact same deadlock?

In the DNT piece, Councilor Julsrud said the Council should vote anew on its three finalists. Does anyone actually think that anyone will change their mind? Won’t we just end up in the exact same place we were on Monday night? Unless they all know that one of their number has had a change of heart, I don’t see this ending well at all.

The alternative that might—possibly—break the deadlock would be to start the process anew and take applications and conduct interviews again. Even that would carry the threat of a similar outcome, though.

How quickly can the Council change the City Charter to allow for a special election?

If we’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s this: the Council’s attempts to appoint replacement Councilors have been unqualified disasters. An otherwise thoroughly competent and professional Council has been made to look silly twice. No amount of fine-tuning the process will fix this. The problem isn’t with the process. It’s with the very premise. Eight people should not be deciding who represents a district of over 15,000. The people of District 2 need to elect their own Councilors.

The obvious long-term solution here—as several Councilors readily acknowledged on Monday night—is a change to the City Charter to allow for a special election. They need to make it happen, and as quickly as possible. If they are worried about making a post hoc change, Councilor Sipress could conceivably remain on the Council (while ideally abstaining from everything) before resigning once the changes have been made. That would require his cooperation, but I think it’s the most sensible way forward.

What is FairVote Minnesota’s role here, and where’s the accountability?

This is a bit of an aside, but it should be mentioned: the statement from Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota in the News Tribune claims that “the Duluth City Council deviated from the prescribed process” for ranked choice (IRV) elections. The Council arrived at its process, however, after consultation with people at FairVote Minnesota. This would seem to suggest that someone at FairVote Minnesota erred, and the organization should probably own that mistake.

FairVote Minnesota also claims it is “not attached to the outcome” of the vote. If this is the case, why were the City Clerk and the City Attorney calling them? The city needs to figure out what its relationship with this organization is, and should obviously not be relying on them for legal opinions if the organization does not purport to offer them.

That’s enough for now. I welcome comments, replies, and further questions…we need to sort out this mess as quickly as possible.

The Delights of Instant Runoff Voting, Plus Minimum Wage Debate: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/10/14

10 Feb

The Duluth City Council kicked off its business two hours early on Monday night, as it sought to fill the 2nd District seat vacated by Patrick Boyle, now of the St. Louis County Board. The Council had narrowed a field of ten applicants down to three, and brought those three before them for a second interview. Councilor Gardner, the chair of the Personnel Committee, oversaw the proceedings.

The three finalists were Ms. Kathy Heltzer, Ms. Angie Miller, and Mr. Joel Sipress. The results from the first round suggested it would be a tight race, with three first-place votes for Ms. Heltzer and Mr. Sipress, plus one for Ms. Miller, who is probably the best-known of the group; she recently completed a four-month interim term on the County Board in the stead of her late husband, Steve O’Neil. All three appeared reliably liberal, which—worries about Council uniformity aside—seemed in keeping with the intentions of the voters of District 2, who had re-elected the unopposed liberal Councilor Boyle last November.

The process was messy from the start, as the Councilors invited the three candidates up to the table to take a few questions. Four Councilors asked questions relating to the role of councilors, dealing with land use disputes, availability to constituents, and the most pressing issue facing the city (along with a solution). Instead of asking the candidates the same questions at once and rotating the person to first take the questions, they asked each individual all four questions in succession. Predictably, the first candidate to answer, Ms. Miller, was somewhat vague and stumbled through the questions, while Mr. Sipress, who went last, had plenty of time to think up precise answers and build off of what the first two had said. He was exacting and meticulous, citing the city charter in his responses on Councilor roles, and did not dither with multiple issues facing the city as the other two did. Still, it wasn’t hard to see the appeal in Ms. Heltzer, who also had very clear and sensible answers, and all three appeared thoroughly competent and had fairly similar answers. It appeared the vote would come down to the two who hadn’t supported Sipress or Heltzer in the first round, Councilors Fosle and Julsrud.

Without bothering to explain their choices, the Councilors went into the voting. The City Clerk, Mr. Cox claimed the form was “a little zealous” with its many columns for votes, but in the end, the form was rather sensible. The first vote failed to achieve a 5-vote majority, with 4 votes for Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson), 3 for Heltzer (Krug, Larson, Russ), and 1 for Miller (Julsrud). And so there was a second round, in which Councilor Julsrud switched her vote to Heltzer, leaving the Council deadlocked.

The Council then proceeded through two more rounds of voting, but no one blinked. It was a tedious process, with the Councilors finding humorous ways to fill the time as Mr. Cox tabulated the votes. Councilor Hanson told a bad joke, while President Krug plugged a few press conferences she’d attended; the Olympics got a mention, as did the anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, which had Councilor Russ reminiscing on the time she went to see them in Milwaukee in 1964, when she was 14. (She couldn’t hear a thing.) Councilor Garnder had everyone running for cover when she threatened to give a history of the councilor appointment process.

With no decision in four rounds of simple majority vote, the Council moved to an instant runoff vote (IRV; also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV). This is a process in which voters rank candidates in accordance to their preference; the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and people who voted for that person have their votes transferred to their second choice, and so on until the process produces a winner with the majority. The immediate question is why the Council didn’t just use IRV to begin with; the first round would have produced the same result as a majority vote, and would have spared us several rounds of electoral games of chicken. Moreover, now that the Councilors had been through four rounds of voting and knew where everyone else stood, they predictably voted strategically, as everyone who ranked all three put their top choice at #1, Ms. Miller at #2, and the other contender tied for first at #3. Once again, Sipress and Heltzer each had 4 votes. Of course, this could have happened had they done IRV at the start of the process (as I think would have been more logical–why use it only as a backup?), but there’s at least a chance that the second-place votes might have been a bit less strategic and more reflective of the actual order in each person’s mind. (Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt that every single one of them thought Miller should have been #2.)

But wait! There was more confusion. Despite Mr. Cox’s insistence that everyone should rank all three, not everyone did: Councilors Fosle, Hanson, and Julsrud only ranked their top choice, and left the rest of their ballots blank. This meant that Sipress had three third-place votes, while Heltzer only had two. There was some confusion over whether this apparent technicality really could swing the vote, so Mr. Cox and Attorney Johnson retreated to a back office and called an IRV expert at Fair Vote Minnesota for a ruling. (This is where I slip in my obnoxiously pompous comment to say that there was someone in the room who learned the details of IRV as a political science undergrad and knew what the correct interpretation was, but I suppose I’m not exactly qualified to issue a ruling on this sort of thing.)

At this point, President Krug suspended the special meeting so that the poor men from the steam plant, patiently waiting in back, could come forward for their Committee of the Whole report. The Council plowed straight on into the regular meeting, and was halfway through the citizen speakers when Mr. Cox finally emerged with a verdict: Mr. Sipress’s extra third-place vote was enough to get him the last spot on the Council. (Under standard IRV this is not correct…see the follow-up posts for more.) He took his oath and assumed Councilor Boyle’s empty seat.

Despite the bizarre tiebreaker, no one protested much; everyone just seemed relieved to arrive at a resolution. Councilor Hanson was all for violating the charter and having a special election to fill the seat; Councilor Gardner told him they couldn’t do that, and worried it might come to a coin toss at one point. This idea repulsed President Krug, though there was consensus that, after two straight messy Council appointments, a change to the city charter appears necessary. In a case such as this one, with nearly two full years until the next Council election, a special election seems by far the most sensible choice; as frustrating as it may be to constituents, in short-term cases such as the one this past fall, it may make more sense just to leave seats vacant. This is one case in which the stakes are high enough that no process at all may be better than a bad process. At any rate, this process did—stumblingly, haltingly—deliver the candidate I considered most qualified, based on the brief interview I saw.

***

The meeting itself breezed by. Among the citizen speakers, Ms. Alison Clark was back to again demand the construction of the Lakewalk around Beacon Pointe, while a man told a long story of bureaucratic red tape surrounding his fire-damaged home, which Councilor Gardner and CAO Montgomery offered to look into, if only to find some resolution. Former Councilor Boyle came forward to reflect a bit on his four-plus years on the Council, talked about how far the city had come since 2009, and offered continued support from his new position across the way in the St. Louis County Building.

The only issue on the agenda to generate any debate at all was a resolution supporting a statewide push to raise the minimum wage. There were single speakers for and against the resolution, and Councilor Gardner mustered a reply to the critic of the measure. She cited polls suggesting 70 percent support for an increase and explained that giving poor people money was a sure way to get the money back into the economy, as they’d spend it on fairly basic needs. She noted that wages have been stagnant despite increased productivity over the past thirty years, and said the measure was important despite its symbolic nature, as it started a conversation and showed the Council’s priorities. Most of the rest of the Council, flexing its liberal muscles, repeated her points, with a few additions: Councilor Larson explained that the proposal would index the minimum wage to inflation so as to prevent drastic shifts, and Councilor Sipress suggested that higher a minimum wage would help taxpayers, as it would lessen stress on government safety nets.

As expected, Councilor Fosle was the lone dissenter; he proudly claimed the conservative mantel and worried that the measure would backfire, and have an especially heavy effect on people on fixed income who might not be getting more money relative to inflation. Councilor Gardner countered this claim, saying people on fixed income have seen more adjustments for inflation over the past 30 years than people working minimum wage jobs. After President Krug’s endorsement of the resolution as a judicious use of symbolic resolutions, it passed, 8-1. The Council wrapped up its business with a few minor ordinances that passed unanimously, and everyone welcomed Councilor Sipress to the fold. He will, hopefully, be the last Duluth City Councilor appointed by his peers, and not chosen by voters.

A New Counterweight: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/14/13

15 Oct

First off, I’ve gotten some very good responses from a number of people on my last post on charter schools. There will be a follow-up in the not-so-distant future. I appreciate the comments and welcome them from any perspective: please, make use of the comment boxes, or if you know me personally, get in touch through email or Facebook. I love the dialogue and I’m willing to answer to just about any sort of critique or question.

The Duluth City Council was in a rather festive mood as it kicked off its first meeting in three weeks. There was a warm energy in the council chamber at the start, and for good reason: as several Councilors noted, the city has won two major victories in recent weeks, with perpetual headache Jim Carlson convicted on 51 of 55 counts for his sales of synthetic drugs in federal court, and the city winning a substantial sum in a settlement with the Fon Du Luth Casino; while neither case is totally settled, things look good on both fronts for now.

The goodwill dissipated fairly quickly when Councilor Krug, who was absent at last week’s meeting, took the other Councilors to task for their inability to fill former Councilor Garry Krause’s vacant seat. (Details here, in last meeting’s write-up.) She wondered why, after Mr. Eckenberg announced his disinterest in filling the seat for only two meetings, they did not then appoint the other applicant to the seat, Mr. Radzak, whom they had all deemed qualified. She also opined that Atty. Johnson had erred; while he did correctly interpret the city charter, she said state statutes should have clarified the situation. Councilor Gardner agreed with her, and the two agreed to work to correct any future issues. Councilor Larson, with assist from Councilor Fosle and CAO Montgomery, updated the city on the efforts to re-route logging trucks off of Superior Street.

Councilor Krause’s seat came up again during the public comment session, as two citizens lashed out about the lack of representation for District Four. Former police lieutenant Peggy Johnson plugged the launch of the Duluth Police Foundation this Thursday at 5:00 at Clyde Iron. Mr. Rich Jaworski of the Duluth Children’s Museum and eight kids, most of middle school age, came forward to share the story of their radio conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station; the Councilors all melted into their sweetest smiles as the kids talked, and Councilor Julsrud snapped some pictures.

There were also two citizens who seemed rather confused over which political body they were speaking to. One man ranted about the luxurious expenses accrued by President Obama and IRS employees while the national debt grows, while our old friend Mr. Loren Martell shared some “facts” about the school board levies on this fall’s ballot. This is the City Council, not Congress or the School Board, people. But, hey, I guess they got themselves on TV.

After that, it was back to business. The consent agenda sailed through, 8-0, and a few resolutions were pulled back to administration. A resolution to appoint Mr.  James Williams as Director of Public Administration did draw some dissent from Councilor Fosle; while he was quick to say that he had no issues with Mr. Williams himself, he said the position was not necessary. He claimed it had been created a few years prior to give a former CAO a job, had an exorbitant salary, and just created more “top-heavy” bureaucracy. Councilor Gardner said she had been a bit skeptical as well, but had been reassured of the position’s value. Councilor Krug grumbled that the city should have made a stronger effort to retain the former occupant of the position, an African-American woman, and also complained of the lack of women in the Administration; CAO Montgomery countered both charges. The resolution passed with Councilor Fosle as the lone “no” vote.

Next up was a resolution authorizing the dumping of snow at a spot owned by the Economic Development Authority by the harbor, as has been done in recent years. Councilor Stauber announced his opposition, as he thought dumping snow filled with road salt next to a waterway was a bad idea; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the snowmelt at least filtered through the ground when dumped there, whereas it would go straight into the water as runoff if simply left where it was. Councilor Fosle also asked for updates on the search for a new spot to dump snow, and wondered why it all had to be put in one place. The resolution passed, 5-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Stauber all opposed.

After Councilor Stauber shared a nice story about the Police Department’s bomb-sniffing dog, which had some grant money approved unanimously, the Council had another debate about the cross-city Duluth Traverse bike trail. Mr. Adam Sundberg of the biking group COGGS spoke in support of the measure, which accepted $2.4 million in grant money for the project. Councilors Larson and Julsrud affirmed their support and said this grant money offered a unique opportunity, while Councilor Stauber pressed CAO Montgomery on the $575,000 the city might have to pay in order to supplement grant money. CAO Montgomery explained that the city might not need to pay all of that money, and said it could be bonded or pulled from parks capital funds. Councilor Fosle echoed Councilor Stauber’s worries, saying “this whole trail thing is getting out of hand,” and wondered about future maintenance costs. He said the city already had bike trails, that the cross-city trail was not a practical commuting route, and wondered why bicycle trails were supported while things his constituents had told him they wanted, like ATV and snowmobile trails, were neglected. Rising to the occasion, he explained that he was simply trying to be the voice of people whom the other Councilors might not be hearing from. Councilor Hartman again tried to insist this was not a “trails versus streets” issue, while Councilors Krug and Gardner said the trail debate shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game between bikes and motorized recreation vehicles. The resolution passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.

Everything else on the agenda was either tabled or passed unanimously. In the closing comments, Councilor Julsrud brought forward a representative from the airport who will be lobbying for a new parking ramp in the coming meetings, and Councilor Stauber gave an update on school speed zones along city streets. A number of the Councilors said they were willing to work with Councilor Fosle on some sort of effort to satisfy snowmobilers and ATV riders.

This was an interesting meeting to watch, as the Council now lacks Garry Krause, who had been among its more active members. I’ve often described the Council as having a liberal-conservative split, but to the Council’s credit, the debates here often go beyond a simple left-versus-right war. While Councilor Krause was a well-spoken leader for the fiscally conservative minority who also was willing to compromise, I often sang his praises because he brought a different sort of opinion forward. I especially liked his characterization of himself as the defender of the “mundane and boring,” and his ability to raise some unique questions about the Administration’s new projects and march of “progress” helped make sure that the Council never fell victim to groupthink or narrow ideological divides.

With Krause now out of the picture, I wondered if anyone would fill that void; Councilor Gardner often does a good job of this from the liberal side, but I wondered if the more conservative members would be able to find their own counterweight. Councilor Stauber has a fairly similar temperament but is more soft-spoken and will retire in January, and I’ve had my doubts over Councilor Fosle. Councilor Fosle has never seemed very keen on compromise, and as I’ve noted numerous times, his criticisms can seem to come out of left field. More than once, I’ve had the impression that his sparring partners think he is just blathering so as to distract people from the issue at hand.

This time, however, there were real signs of maturation, and Councilor Fosle may yet emerge as a conscientious critic. Yes, his speeches still wander occasionally, and yes, some things he says come off as hyperbole. A few weeks ago, I called Councilor Fosle’s claim that the city should be worrying about heroin and ecstasy instead of e-cigarettes a “red herring.” After this past meeting, I’ll give him real credit: this wasn’t just some attempt to distract the debate. The last few minutes of the comments section were spent making plans to discuss the issues these drugs create in Duluth. Councilor Fosle is arranging for a number of community speakers at the next Council meeting, and described rises in the consumption of both drugs, often paid for by desperate people with food stamp EBT cards. He also suggested the Council educate itself on krokodil, a new drug which, if you haven’t heard of it, is absolutely frightening: as Councilor Fosle described in vivid terms, it is a cheap version of heroin that causes flesh to fall off, is often fatal, and is now on the rise. Councilor Fosle may frustrate at times, but he has a knack for picking up on things that other people don’t necessarily see, and talking to people who may not otherwise get a spot at the table. His concerns are genuine, and I’m curious to see how he evolves in future meetings. After a messy meeting last time around, the Council was back to looking like an effective, consensus-building body that also includes some diversity of opinion, and a quick glance at the other political bodies out there “operating” right now is a good reminder that we shouldn’t take this sort of thing for granted.

A Long and Awkward Good-Bye for Councilor Krause: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/23/13

23 Sep

It was an odd night at City Hall. The crowd was modest in size, there were no citizen speakers, and there were no grave disputes between the Councilors beyond the usual, civil back-and-forth. Yet somehow, it also wound up being the ugliest meeting I’ve seen since I started attending them. It was also the end of an era, so to speak, as Councilor Krause’s resignation was set to take effect after the meeting; indeed, his departure was at the root of the evening’s troubles. The Council’s bloc of fiscal conservatives has now shrunk from three to two, but the frustrations had nothing to do with Councilor Krause’s principled stands, nor the ideology of his successor. In fact, thanks to a heap of Council confusion, he has no successor.

President Boyle began the night by convening a special meeting to appoint Councilor Krause’s replacement, in which Councilor Krause was not allowed to participate. (Councilor Krug was also absent, leaving the Council with seven voting members for the special meeting.) President Boyle announced that the Council had interviewed two candidates, Mr. Zachary Radzak and Mr. Gary Eckenberg, found them both impressive, and invited the Councilors to share their opinions on each.

Councilor Stauber went first, but instead of endorsing one of the two candidates, he shared his serious concerns about the selection process. He was upset there had been no public hearing, that the process was being conducted via resolution (and hence technically open to a veto by Mayor Ness), and thought it was pointless to appoint someone only until the November 5 election. Councilor Gardner defended the process, saying it had worked for past vacancies (including two for Councilor Krause’s 4th District seat in the past four years), and while she agreed there was room for improvement, she said it would have to do for this particular situation. She then endorsed Mr. Eckenberg for the position, as he is a past member of the Council and would be able to hit the ground running.

Next, Councilor Fosle demanded an answer as to when the appointed Councilor’s term would end. City Attorney Gunnar Johnson replied that the Council would sit the person elected in November at the next Council meeting; it was his interpretation that past Councils had violated the City Charter in not doing so. Satisfied, Councilors Hartman, Julsrud, and Larson all told Mr. Radzak he was an impressive candidate, but expressed their support for Mr. Eckenberg.

At that point, Mr. Eckenberg came forward, held a whispered conversation with Atty. Johnson, and then took the stand before the Council. He said he had been under the impression that the person appointed to fill Councilor Krause’s seat would stay on the Council until January, when the Councilor elected to the seat in November would normally take office. A one-month appointment, he said, made zero sense, and would not allow him to do anything of substance. The 4th District could survive for a month without representation. He thus withdrew his name from consideration.

This rather understandably threw off the entire meeting, and Councilor Boyle brought forward yet another confusing point: Councilor Krause’s name will appear on the ballot in November, and if he were to win, the seat would then be his. If that were to happen, the Council would need to go through the re-appointment process yet again. Councilor Fosle asked if the resolution could be amended to allow Mr. Eckenberg to serve until January, but Atty. Johnson said it could not, as that would be a violation of the Charter.

For his part, Councilor Stauber was rather pleased with this development. He agreed that a one-month appointment did no good, and that the Council could simply appoint someone to fill the seat if Councilor Krause were to win. This irked Councilor Gardner, who said there was nothing “simple” about the whole process. She accused Councilor Stauber of selective interpretation of the Charter, which insists that vacancies on the Council must be filled in a timely manner. She implored Mr. Eckenberg to reconsider his position, but Mr. Eckenberg politely declined, saying he had been misled about what he was applying for.

An exasperated Councilor Julsrud apologized to Mr. Eckenberg, and suggested the Council pull the measure and follow Councilor Stauber’s suggestion. Councilor Hartman disagreed, admitting a one-month appointment made “no sense,” but that, due to the Charter, “sometimes we have to do things that make no sense.” The Council, however, chose to make sense. It pulled the resolution, 4-3, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, Stauber, and Boyle in support. Councilor Krause’s seat will thus remain open until after the November election.

With this sloppy affair mercifully over, the Council kicked off its actual meeting, in which CAO Montgomery began by presenting Councilor Krause with a plaque thanking him for his service. Councilor Krause in turn thanked him, the Council, the City Hall staff, and the city employees who are on the front lines of resolving city problems. The consent agenda then passed, 8-0. A resolution creating a pedestrian underpass under Haines Road passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Krause complaining about unnecessary expenditures.

The major topic of debate for the meeting proper was a plan to finance a phase of construction of the cross-city trail. This particular section, extending from Canal Park to 30th Avenue West, would cost $1.3 million, though a chunk of that sum would be paid by federal and DNR grants. Once again, there was some exhausting bureaucratic wrangling, as the ordinance authorizing the bonds to pay for the project and the resolution awarding the contract were in an illogical order on the meeting agenda. Once Atty. Johnson resolved the confusion, debate ensued.

To no one’s great surprise, the Council’s three fiscal conservatives shared their doubts about the plan. Councilor Krause called Duluth a “large city with many cities in it,” whatever other people might try to say, and that the residents of his district appeared not to value the trail as much as the still-shuttered community centers. (This phase of the project is primarily in Councilor Krause’s district.) He and Councilor Stauber questioned the wisdom of incurring more bonding debt when the city had already taken on more debt over the previous year; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the city had reduced its debt since 2007. Councilor Fosle went so far as to challenge the Council’s power to use bonding to fund trails, but both CAO Montgomery and Atty. Johnson refuted his point.

Councilor Hartman pushed CAO Montgomery for more details on the other funding sources, and he replied by saying that roughly 70% of the project would be paid for in grants. The project, he argued, was a good way to leverage the city’s money, as it turned $450,000 worth of money into $1.8 million in trails, whereas using that same $450,000 on streets would only result in $450,000 worth of street improvements. He also noted the value of trails as a tourist attraction, and Councilor Hartman added that commuters using the trail reduced wear and tear on the streets.

Councilor Krause said all of this leveraging was well and good, but in the end it still added to city long-term operating costs, and he therefore could not support it. Councilor Stauber repeated his dissatisfaction, and Councilors Fosle and Gardner both complained about the inadequate map they’d been given of the plans. Mapping issue aside, both measures related to the cross-city trail passed, 5-3; predictably, Councilors Krause, Stauber, and Fosle were the dissenters.

The Council wrapped up its business with the unanimous approval of a zoning reclassification, and a brief but contentious meeting came to an end. In the closing comments, Councilor Hartman pleaded that Atty. Johnson inform the Councilors of changes in interpretation of the City Charter before the meeting if at all possible, as the evening’s developments had left them in a “very awkward position,” and “didn’t look good.” Once again, his closing comments accurately summed up the mood of the meeting, in which dysfunction over Councilor Krause’s seat overwhelmed any substantive achievements later on. It was also an unfortunate end to Councilor Krause’s tenure on the Council; while I have to respect him greatly for his reasoned critiques and attempts to compromise, this entire process was not pretty, and the timing of his departure was poor, to say the least. The eight-member Council will now have to press on without him, and must clearly find a way to streamline its process for appointing replacement Councilors. Duluth deserves something far cleaner than what it got in this meeting.