Tag Archives: duluth city council

Of Vacation Rentals and Density Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/10/17

11 Apr

The Duluth city council was on the forefront of urban planning debates this past Monday, as it discussed vacation rentals and density within the city limits on the same night. In both cases, I’m going to poke at urban planning orthodoxy mildly, not because I think it is wrong, exactly, but because I think Duluth needs to ask some questions rather than simply accepting trendy thinking. The details:

Vacation Dwelling Units and Neighborhood Effects

The first debate involved a permit to allow a vacation dwelling unit (VDU; think Airbnb) on Berwick Court, a cul-de-sac off of Arrowhead Road near Hartley Park not far before Kenwood Avenue as one heads west. John Ramos at the Reader covered this one in detail when it was before the Planning Commission, so I won’t belabor the background. At Monday’s meeting, several neighbors said the VDU was wrong for many reasons, though they gave only one concrete one beyond the vague “character of the neighborhood” stuff one always hears on this sort of issue: an immediate neighbor is old and not exactly in possession of all of her faculties, and may have some unfortunate run-ins with VDU guests. Council President Joel Sipress delicately described his interaction with her as “challenging” when he went up to do his due diligence on the property. As a result, he and Councilor Em Westerlund amended the permit to require the addition of a screen between the VDU and the elderly neighbor. Both the amendment and the permit passed 8-1, with Councilor Noah Hobbs preferring to stick with the original screenless recommendation from the Planning Commission, and Councilor Howie Hanson opposing the thing entirely in a screed against an the “erosion of neighborhoods.”

This was an issue that blew up normal battle lines and inspired good debate. As with the Uber debate two weeks prior, the normally solidly progressive Sipress expressed considerable leeriness of this supposed progress, and went into his nuanced monologue mode to worry about the effect on neighborhoods. Councilor Barb Russ seconded this, and suggested the city revisit the criteria for VDUs and find some way to limit dramatic changes. Councilor Jay Fosle, normally the voice of no to this sort of newfangled scheme, showered love on VDUs, saying they created economic activity and scoffing at the suggestion that “a bunch of nasty people will come and rent the house.” Hobbs, meanwhile, brought up the biggest sticking point with any neighborhood-based policy: how on earth do we devise a “hierarchy of neighborhoods” for awarding of VDUs without making some potentially prejudicial decisions? Sipress and Russ both readily conceded this point. Anyone who’s observed city politics knows this runs the risk of just opening up a door for whoever yells loudest to get permits denied, and that these people are inevitably going to be older, more affluent people who have the time and resources to devote to hammering city councils.

If the city does revisit this and sees a need for continued limits of VDUs, I would advocate for quotas within neighborhoods, set by some blanket standard such as population. This would remove the influence of well-connected neighbors and prevent the emergence of “vacation rental ghettoes.” That phrase sounds silly as I write it, which perhaps betrays my natural bias here: in principle I think VDUs make a lot of sense. However, I prefer not to make unfounded assumptions about how their consequences at a large scale, and while this is a different phenomenon from the fashion in which neighborhoods tip from majority homeownership to long-term rentals, a neighborhood that achieves some critical mass of homes without long-term residents does probably start to erode some. (No, one or two houses on a cul-de-sac do not represent that sort of critical mass.) I also think decisions that take good single family housing stock off the market may pose some problems in a city like Duluth, as the council’s next great planning debate showed all too clearly.

The Great Density Debate

The other hot button issue involved a resolution that, as initially worded, would have encouraged the city to consider “high density zoning”—basically, taller buildings—in its ongoing comprehensive plan process. Councilor Zack Filipovich brought it forward, and took a beating for his trouble. A big part of the issue was the process, which Filipovich conceded: this resolution appeared seemingly out of the blue immediately before the previous week’s agenda session, and Hobbs seemed to speak for many on the council when he said he’d wished they’d had a chance to debate this before it came before them all as a whole. He and Sipress, who once again seemed quite presidential in his ability to give a nuanced take on the concerns of the council writ large, offered an amendment which dramatically reworked the resolution, and instead pitched it as a call for greater density using all potential development tools, from infill to redevelopment to townhomes.

No one found this broader emphasis controversial, though Filipovich tried again to get at his original point, which seemed to come out of his conversations with city planning staff: they think the city is already doing what it needs to do on the infill and redevelopment fronts (which is mostly true), but needed this added pitch to encourage height. The rest of the council balked at this, given the political sensitivity of views; Hanson went off about how this might be in response to specific projects (which Filipovich roundly denied), while Fosle found the whole debate much ado about nothing, as it is the unified development code, not the comp plan, that ultimately settles these questions. While there is probably some merit to further outlining standards for upward growth, Duluth’s planners need to do a much better sales job instead of ramming a quick resolution through. In the end, the councilors tabled the whole mess.

Discussion strayed far and wide and to interesting points, though, and one of the more frequent topics was Hermantown. Filipovich first noted that it is the fastest growing city in the region (which is true), even as its prices are not inflating, whereas Duluth’s are doing so despite the fact the city isn’t growing. Real estate listings in Hermantown are up considerably, whereas Duluth’s market only seems to get tighter and tighter. Hobbs countered that this was a bad analogy for this resolution, as Hermantown’s growth was anything but upward: instead, it sprawls outward far more so than Duluth. Given Duluth’s relative lack of available land and aging infrastructure that is difficult to maintain, let alone extend, that sort of growth pattern is not a realistic option at any sort of scale.

The Hermantown debate also illuminated the battle lines between those who we might call the critics of the happy talk about Duluth’s direction in recent years (Fosle and Hanson) and the liberal optimists’ club. I will counter one of Fosle’s critiques, in which he wondered where this supposed job growth was coming from in a city with a stagnant population: while the Duluth metro area may not be getting dramatically larger, its job growth over the past decade is reasonably good, and relative to its population growth is actually very good when compared to most peer cities. (If someone wants numbers to back this up, I can oblige.) As I’ve been at pains to note in other posts, the metro area has been growing steadily since 1990—not quickly, but steadily—and basically all of this growth is beyond the city limits, namely in Hermantown. As Hobbs noted, these outlying areas have the obvious perk of having a lot of available land, and Fosle and Hanson tagged on a few additional concerns that may lead people to move beyond the city limits, such as perceptions of crime or newer infrastructure or a desire for space. (No one mentioned the other major driver I’d put up next to land availability, though. Hint: it involves a different Duluth elected body that I cover on this blog from time to time.)

Still, I think the Hermantown-Duluth comparison is illuminating, though perhaps not in the way councilors thought it was. Whatever the benefits of density, large new apartment or condo complexes do little to make Duluth appealing to a lot of the people who are electing to move to Hermantown and its ilk. To the extent that housing decisions drive this move—and they certainly do—any response by Duluth to try to stem that tide will require an expansion of the single-family housing stock. Given the relative lack of buildable land within city limits, that’s going to mean renovation (or teardowns) and infill or bust. That isn’t cheap, and requires further study to understand the costs, but if the city does want to retain younger families and build the tax base through housing development—a goal I firmly support—I see no other option at this point.

This doesn’t invalidate the broader emphasis on density, which is spot on, especially when it comes to commercial property. On the residential side, I think the city can handle a few more Bluestones and Endis, and would wholeheartedly support them. However, I’m skeptical that the market justifies a broader glut of market-rate apartment complexes that would build the tax base. Duluth doesn’t have a ton of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, and those who are tend to get on the marriage-and-kids train faster than in other cities; for that matter, there is still a reasonably affordable single-family housing stock. (Yes, options are tight, but the market here still looks heavenly for this soon-to-be-house-hunting 27-year-old when compared to Minneapolis, to say nothing of anything on the coasts.) And while there have been some increases in other populations that lend themselves to density—seniors, low-income people—the sort of dense housing they need isn’t going to prove a windfall for city coffers.

I’ll quickly note that I’m not saying Duluth shouldn’t build dense housing for these populations; the city does have some real affordability concerns, and I applaud the recent push to get more lower-income units in a development in Duluth Heights, which is both near jobs and may help de-concentrate poverty. We do need to be clear-eyed about the realities of who uses dense development, though, and recognize that there’s a clear role for the Hermantowns of the world to house some of these people, too. The density gospel in contemporary urban planning gets a lot right, but it’s not a panacea, either. We need to think beyond that to get to the heart of issues.

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A Floor for the Stool to Stand On

1 Apr

Last Monday, I attend committee of the whole meeting, a soiree in which the Duluth city councilors all gather together to hear a presentation, often from a city staffer or some contracted party. Monday’s topic was the recent spate of heroin-related deaths, overdoses, and arrests in Duluth. (Though city officials use it, I am going to shy away from using the term “epidemic,” for reasons I will explain later.) It showed a proactive city response, one that has already heard Mayor Emily Larson’s call to fight back.  Duluth is basically doing everything right. And yet it still may not matter.

Mike Tusken, the city’s Chief of Police, gave the presentation. Duluth is lucky to have Tusken, who is on the forefront of tackling issues like opioids, and has worked with many partners to develop a comprehensive strategy. He continues a long tradition of creative, community-minded policing in this city. He repeated himself several times: Duluth cannot arrest its way out of this problem.

Not that it can’t try. The city has been remarkably proactive to date. Its arrest and seizure rates far exceed other parts of the state, even when accounting for the higher addiction rates. They’ve overheard arrested dealers saying they have no desire to ever return to Duluth, as the police are all over them here.  Paradoxically,  with a crackdown on the supply and no change in demand, the price only rises, and increases the incentives for dealers to try their hand in this market. Without a change in demand, there will always be a reason for people to try to match the supply and make money off of it.

Tusken spoke of a three-legged stool necessary to combat the opiod surge, and spent plenty of time on the second leg, treatment. The opioid task force has an embedded social worker on hand to help with outreach. Needle exchanges, methadone clinics, drug court, treatment programs: there are a wide range of options available to people at various stages of addiction recovery, though in some cases, long wait times leads to people slipping through the cracks. When these programs are effective, expanding them only makes sense, and the police appear to be doing a good job of tracking data.

Finally, there is an education component, and once again, Duluth is staying as close to the cutting edge as it can in making sure the education leg of the stool relies on serious research and study. The city dropped its old DARE program for fifth graders because studies found it ineffective; now, with a new curriculum that has shown some initial promise, DPD is ramping it up again, recognizing that middle school health class is often too late to make this connection.

In short, combatting opioids requires a comprehensive strategy, and Duluth has built a comprehensive strategy. And yet I still find myself taking a skeptical bent. The opioid crisis is much more than a public health issue. Hence my misgivings over the word “epidemic,” which makes it sound like an outbreak of some virus. Treating it as such misses out on yet another element at play, and may mistake the symptoms for the disease.

Chief Tusken was at pains to emphasize how opioids affect everyone. Yes, at times these addictions can hit people who’ve been on them for, say, a sports injury. And yes, as with any drug, there are no doubt plenty of people from wealthier backgrounds who end up on them, whether due to peer pressure or ennui or an effort to escape dysfunction in some less material sphere of life. But let’s not bury the lede here: this particular crisis grew out of a particular class of people. Those who are toward the bottom of the economic ladder, even if they do not necessarily use drugs more than those toward the top, are much more likely to suffer its negative effects. The increase in middle-aged white mortality in the United States—a stunning reversal in recent years, one that runs counter to trends in other first-world countries and even other racial and ethnic groups in this one—is among the non-college educated.

This implies that the problem is socioeconomic, which in turn implies a need for socioeconomic solutions. Better education, more reliable careers for those who don’t have an education: we’ve heard all of these before, and it adds up to the fourth leg of a stool. The stories from later that evening make it clear how declining economic station can lead to feedback loops and greater struggles. This sort of crisis is a call to find solutions, and this is, I suppose, why I work in economic development. We have a lot to learn about how to adapt to an economy that looks drastically different from the one that made Duluth a powerhouse of the industrial era. Even with this city’s relative success when compared to many of its Rust Belt brethren, there are a lot of people who don’t have obvious long-term roles to play in the economy. Regardless, stable incomes and meaningful work are part of the solution.

But for all these pieces coming together, for all the scholarly rigor in making sure they work, this approach can’t quite go all the way. Take it from the pioneers of the first study to document the dying white non-college-grad trend have just come out and said it: the crisis goes much deeper than opioids.  Call it psychological, moral, spiritual: without an underlying belief system that informs a conception of what a complete human life looks like, all the policy tools in the book can’t turn the tide. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the Mormons; whatever one may think of their faith, they’re keeping the American Dream alive better than anyone else out there. Perhaps we just need to do a much better job of thinking holistically, especially when it comes to an honest accounting of the more troubled portions of individuals’ minds that we can’t just legislate away. People who have fought addictions and won know this better than anyone. Without a solid floor to stand on, it doesn’t matter how many legs there are on a stool.

Progress Uber Alles: Duluth City Council Notes, 3/27/17

29 Mar

Oh no, the black hole is sucking me back in: I’m writing about Duluth City Council meetings again. Perhaps I’m out of practice after a few years away, but Monday’s edition certainly ranked among the most uncomfortable public meetings I’ve ever witnessed. I attended mostly for the pre-meeting Committee of the Whole about opioid abuse issues in the Duluth area, a topic about which I know little and am somewhat curious, especially after just reading a book on how they can consume a post-industrial town. I did, however, stick around for the more memorable part of the night: a debate over “Transportation Network Companies,” or TNCs, which is legalese for Uber and Lyft.

My caveats before I start: I rarely take taxis, in Duluth or anywhere else. My handful of experiences with cabs in Duluth have been fine, though I’ve also had a couple of nights where they were unreachable, and had another ride in a memorably dented cab. I have used Uber and Lyft with some regularity in larger cities and enjoyed those experiences, mostly because of the convenience and ease of the platform they operate on. Being able to request a ride with a few touches of a screen, see how far away that ride is, know the fare beforehand, and easily divide fares among riders makes life easier, especially for more spontaneous trips. The nicer vehicles don’t hurt, either. I’m aware that Uber has some ethical issues and implications for existing cab companies, but hadn’t given them much thought until Monday night. One can only fight our Silicon Valley overlords on so many fronts.

While the council chamber was filled with cab drivers and their various allies, only four came forward to speak. All expressed worry about the damage TNCs could cause to their business; many expected to be done. It was a hardscrabble crowd. Unlike many large cities, where immigrants have come to dominate the cab industry, this group’s membership was almost entirely from that category we’ve come to call “white working class” this past election cycle. They came out in numbers, they were angry, and they were largely resigned to yet another defeat.

Councilor comments began with Councilor Noah Hobbs, the author of the resolution, explaining his many efforts to regulate TNCs in a fair way that imposed standards without being onerous. He pointed to stringent insurance requirements and a clear permitting process, even if certain fees were somewhat lower that with cabs. Councilors Barb Russ, Zack Filipovich, and Howie Hanson lined up to support the resolution, all thanking Hobbs’ work and acknowledging the complexity of the issue. They all hinted at a certain inevitability when it came to TNCs; while none of them expressed much of an interest in using them, they said they knew which way the world was going, and had little choice.

With four ‘yes’ votes in the books, Council President Joel Sipress took the microphone, and began a lengthy discourse on his concerns about TNCs. He worried about their effects on existing cab companies, lamented the practice of employing drivers as contract employees (thereby skirting labor laws), and expressed disappointment in seeing money from local transportation swallowed up by a large outside company instead staying in the community. He then asked CAO Montgomery to elaborate on the city’s regulation mechanisms, who allowed the entire council chamber an opportunity to nap through this lengthy recitation. Satisfied, Sipress then announced that, for all his reservations, he would support the resolution, as he knew it was going to pass anyway and wanted to acknowledge the hard work done by Hobbs and city staff to find something workable. With a fifth ‘yes’ vote in hand, the cabbies all marched toward the exit, some adding choice words on their way; one announced that his Superior-based cabs wouldn’t cross the bridge again. The measure ultimately passed by a 7-1 margin, with Councilor Jay Fosle as the lone ‘no’ vote. (Councilor Elissa Hansen was absent.)

In the councilor comments following the meeting, Fosle politely rebuked Sipress’s intimation that his no vote wouldn’t have mattered: “Voting no matters to the people who it affects.” As a frequent lone ‘no’ vote, Fosle would certainly know. In opposition to the ordinance, he mounted a defense of threatened individuals and businesses in the here and now rather than relying on vague hopes it would all work out, and promises to revisit the issue if it didn’t. Fosle is a conservative in the truest sense of the word: he is here to conserve what exists, to protect people from changes in regulation no matter their station. He consistently speaks for people who do not have it easy and who are not at ease in these stately halls, even if they are not a majority, and if their plight goes far beyond the control of this little city council.

Howie Hanson, sounding as eloquent as I have ever heard him, pushed back. “I’m not sure our role is to protect businesses; it’s to level the playing field,” he said, hoping the regulations would do that. He pointed out how much the internet has changed things in countless fields: “you have to change or die.” As someone in the publishing industry, he would have some knowledge of this. “It’s scary. It’s hard to know what’s our role,” he concluded, sounding a very fair philosophical question.

The counterpoint comes from Celia Scheer, one of the cab drivers who spoke. It was difficult for her to come to this meeting, she said: it was the birthday of her late son, who had died of a heroin overdose in the past year. That might seem coincidental with the committee meeting on opioids at the start of the night, but the parallels here are all too real. She blamed government regulation for this and a previous job loss, though I think she misses the degree to which politicians are responding to market forces (on this issue, at the very least). Still, it is difficult not to see Ms. Scheer and her fellow drivers as victims of a changing world beyond their control, the poster children for the white working class that has been battered time and again by economic and social disruptions of recent decades.

The cab drivers are among the people with no safe home in a knowledge and technology-driven economy, and for whom even our most creative theories on community and economic development do little. If we’ve learned anything from the past few decades in politics and urban development, it is that decline and loss have particularly harsh effects. They linger, affect different generations, and can trap large swaths of the country in different worlds from its more successful enclaves. Nor is the political party typically associated with support for the downtrodden much of a voice here: all of the DFL-endorsed councilors supported this resolution, while the lone holdout is its most frequent critic. A more rigid partisan than I might use this as an opportunity to blast the direction of the Democratic Party, but I’m not sure that would be right, either. The emotional, raw side of politics has had a good run over the past year and a half, and while I do think we need that rawness to get beyond platitudes and fully understand people’s humanity, we also need to be able to step back and see the big picture.

As Councilor Hanson suggested, it’s hard to justify keeping a struggling industry alive for the sake of propping up the status quo. One speaker mentioned how he and other cabbies could have days where they earned little to no money. If that’s reality, frankly, it’s a sign that the market has too many drivers and not enough riders, and could also benefit from a near-universal real-time app that better matches supply to demand. Regulations might just be propping up a bad business model that distorts the market and passes off costs on consumers, who struggle to organize in response. Sure, the city could continue to prop up the cabs if it wanted to, much as the national government does with, say, the steel industry, another local economic driver that has had its share of misery in recent years. But this is a practice that can quickly grow out of hand and overly political, and with real service improvements from TNCs, comparatively few jobs at stake, and none of the geopolitical or national security implications of something like the steel industry, it’s hard to make a coherent case for the cabbies. If these jobs are on their way out the door, there’s no reason for the council to give false hope, when in reality we may just need to bite the bullet and admit that certain ways of life might just not be sustainable anymore. The city council just finds itself in the unenviable position of needing to deliver that message from on high.

Fortunately, we do have some evidence on the effects of TNCs beyond Duluth. Stories from some major cities point to clear drops in cab drivers, while the most recent and rigorous academic paper I can find on the topic points to no loss in employment, though there is some decline in income among traditional cab driver income only partially offset by the gains in the non-traditional sector. Many of the cabs will survive, though a number of the drivers will likely migrate over to TNCs, and overall options for transportation in Duluth will get better.

This is, however, little consolation to the people who stayed to plot their next moves alongside a row of cabs parked on Government Plaza, their alienation evident even from a distance as I trudged past to my car after the meeting. Even as I look forward to my first Uber ride in Duluth, this night will linger.

The State of Duluth Politics, March 2017

23 Mar

Longtime readers will know that this blog grew up on coverage of Duluth politics. While my current job is politically sensitive enough that I’d rather play it coy on many issues in front of the city these days, I will aim to venture a few comments here and there going forward. This past week is as good a chance as any, following the State of the City address; names are starting to pile up for this fall’s elections too, and as usual, I can’t resist the urge to comment on the ISD 709 school board.

Mayor Larson’s Coming-Out Party

Emily Larson delivered an eye-opening State of the City address on Monday. For the most part, Larson hasn’t set out to be a show-stopper, either during her time on the city council or in her rise to the top spot in City Hall. She’s a team player and a listener, and the first part of her address was devoted to recognizing the everyday work done by city employees to improve Duluth. But Monday night also hinted that there may be more to Emily Larson.

Her State of the City was an ambitious, effective speech. She hammered home three key themes: combating the opioid epidemic, creating affordable housing, and reducing energy emissions. It was a clear, broad vision, and while I’m sure many of us could lobby for certain other things getting higher billing, she does understand how these all interconnect. Her remarks on housing were particularly strong, both for the ambition of her plans and in the acknowledged nuance of housing policy and the market forces that drive it. Her comments on climate change drew the largest cheers from a staunchly liberal crowd, but this wasn’t some diatribe about the direction of national politics; while she acknowledged all of that, she repeatedly made it clear that the way forward required a focus on local action, on controlling what we can control, and shutting out the broader noise. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach,” she said, quoting from a constituent letter. (Whether or not she reads a certain local blog that rather likes this topic, it’s refreshing to see that sort of consistency of vision.)

On Monday night, Larson showed she has the acumen necessary to keep together the broad governing coalition built by her predecessor, Don Ness. This is harder than people think, especially when it’s such a wide-ranging coalition that includes both the Chamber of Commerce crowd and an increasingly vocal activist left. Even though I’m fairly certain I know Larson’s opinion on the issues that have divided these two groups over the past year–oil pipelines, non-ferrous mining, earned sick and safe leave—she’s a smart enough operator to know not to waste her political capital on those debates. She puts herself in positions where she doesn’t need to fight tooth and nail to get her agenda done; she just provides the energy to spur it along, and builds complete movements. Unlike too many politicians who preach unity while ignoring half of their constituents, she actually does want to keep everyone on board. (Whether they will all be willing to stay there may be a different story.)

In contrast to Ness, Larson has never been deeply involved in the Democratic Party apparatus; perhaps for that reason, I had yet to give much thought about her as a candidate for higher office. But in this speech, I saw someone who has the charisma and the political skill that could allow her to make that run. With the climate change push, she’s even taking on an initiative that could be scaled up to another level, although she would certainly need to be even more nimble to succeed in a political environment such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District. If she has the desire and can continue to balance the competing interests in her coalition, I think she has the skill to pull it off. Duluth has itself a powerful mayor, and while the form of power may not match a traditional definition of power, it is power nonetheless.

The Moribund Right

There will be little resistance to Larson’s agenda. To the extent that there are any cracks in the Ness-Larson coalition, they’ve come from people on the leftward flank of that coalition who aren’t fans of the business class, not from a challenge to the right. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Duluth political history to find a long tradition of fiscal conservatism, with recent proponents such as Jim Stauber, Garry Krause, Todd Fedora, and Chris Dahlberg. They were never a majority, but they had a consistent voice, and exercised some influence. Nowadays, with the partial exception of Jay Fosle—a somewhat more complicated figure—that species is all but extinct in Duluth politics.

To some extent, this reflects broader shifts in the American right. Older, civic-minded moderate patricians have much less of a place in the Republican Party now than they did a few years back. In some ways, Chuck Horton’s run for mayor presaged the Trump candidacy; while I wouldn’t draw too tight a parallel, they both tap into a stream of testosterone and had a white working class following. That sort of politics has a fairly low ceiling of support within Duluth proper, though, and (again, with the semi-exception of Fosle) doesn’t seem like much of a winner.  At the same time, the Ness Administration was pretty disciplined fiscally, so there wasn’t much ground to attack it on that front. There’s a lot less ground to occupy here. The only recent attempt to run a distinctive campaign on a nuanced, Duluth-specific conservative platform front came from state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, and she was running in a race she couldn’t win.

I doubt, however, that the Duluth electorate has changed that much in the past five years. Especially now that a few city councilors are taking a much harder leftward tack, I think there’s a clear opening for some center or center-right candidates to do well in elections here. The fourth district (Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Lincoln Park), which elected Garry Krause not that long ago, has an election for what will be an open seat this fall, and would be an obvious target. And while the at-large field is crowded with two incumbents (Zack Filipovich, Barb Russ) plus a few other left-leaning figures, it’s not hard to imagine a more distinctive voice running through a crowded field to at least make it past the primary. After that, a strong candidate would at least have a fighting chance, especially if there’s any division among the DFL ranks over whether to support the comparatively moderate incumbents or not.

For now, however, there are zero candidates stepping in to take that chance. I’d like to see someone try, even if I may not agree with said person on everything. One-party rule of any variety is cause for concern, and elected bodies should approximate the full range of views within a city. We’ll see if any viable takers emerge.

Meanwhile, Back at the School Board

Speaking of moribund…

When I started covering school board meetings on here nearly four years ago, I was very critical of the anti-Red Plan crowd, which at the time consisted of Art Johnston and a few hangers-on. They sounded devoid of ideas, and more interested in reliving a war that had already happened.

How the tables turn. Johnston, who benefits from having allies to keep him on point, has added Harry Welty and now the dynamic Alanna Oswald to his effort to needle the administration; over at the Reader, Loren Martell’s columns have become increasingly lucid. Agree or disagree with them, the school board minority is now putting creative ideas forward for dealing with the district’s issues, and has a new wave of energy. As for the majority and the administration? Well, current district teachers are now writing letters to the DNT editor filleting Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s job searches in other communities. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what the ISD 709 establishment stands for other than opposition to whatever it is that the minority supports. That’s a curious way to govern.

Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Since he was re-elected over a strong opponent with a favorable political climate four years ago, I suspect Johnston can have a third term in his far western district if he wants it. On the far east side, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most steadfast opponent of the minority, is up for re-election. Two of the three at-large seats are also up; Welty will run for re-election, and I’d expect that Annie Harala will be back for another cycle, too. They’re both fairly strong incumbents, as Welty enjoys name recognition and the general tide of public sentiment, while Harala won very comfortably four years ago. At the time, she ran as a post-Red Plan unity candidate, and while she made some efforts to bridge gaps near the start of her term, she’s become a full-on member of the majority over time. That race will say a lot about the ISD 709 school board electorate, though the ability of the minority to recruit a capable candidate is paramount to making it competitive.

If the current minority can hold Johnston and Welty’s seats and pick up just one of Harala and Loeffler-Kemp’s, they’ll no longer be a minority. That would change the tenor of the board room debate in unpredictable ways; it could make things far more contentious between the board and staff, but it could also open up what has long been a stultifying debate. Are Duluth voters willing to take that chance?

Even more so than at the city council level, I think this has the potential to be a huge election year for the school board. There hasn’t been any noise about candidates here yet, but depending on how people play their cards, we could be in for a dramatic shake-up. I’ll be watching things here very closely.

Duluth’s Comings and Goings

5 Jan

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

Duluth Election Filing Deadline Notes, 2015

24 Jul

Hey, Duluth! It’s been a while. I see your filing deadline for this fall’s municipal elections has come and gone, so it’s time to see who’s looking to shape the city for the next four years.

Mayor

We’ll start at the top, which also looks to be the most predictable of all the races so far. Emily Larson has all the inevitability of Hillary Clinton and none of the baggage that makes Clinton unlikable, and it would be a shock not to see her as the next mayor of Duluth. One by one, the people who could have given Don Ness’s heir apparent a run declared their intent to stay out of the race, and the unfailingly positive Larson hasn’t missed a beat.

She does have seven opponents, though, and the field will need to be winnowed down in a September primary. The most intriguing is probably Chuck Horton, the boxing gym owner; agree or disagree with his nonpartisan populism, he has a very distinct take, and some articulate thoughts flowing on his website. The scourge of drugs seems to be the theme of his campaign, while Thomas Cooper also looks to be draw attention toward a clear cause, the plight of disabled Duluthians. John Socha, who ran in 2007 and aims to continue Ness’ policies, is also in the race. John Howard Evans, Robert Schieve, and James Mattson need to tell us a bit more about themselves. Last, there’s Howie Hanson, the Fourth District Councilor who has yo-yoed in and out of the race over the past year. Howie has kept a fairly low profile since re-entering the race, and his positions remain fairly cloudy. Still, he has enough name recognition that he might sneak through into the general election.

The real question in this race is whether someone can offer a genuine policy alternative that might convince others that Larson isn’t the only realistic option. I don’t see it happening, but one never knows. The good news is that the large field indicates some good civic life in Duluth, and even if they don’t win, some of the other candidates might shed some much-needed light on certain issues.

City Council

It’s a busy election year for the Council, with six of the nine seats up for grabs, including four of the five seats based on geographic districts. One of those, however, is not really a race: Second District Councilor Joel Sipress is unopposed, and will win himself a full four-year term after his two-year appointment to a vacancy. In the early going, it’s hard to separate many of the candidates; most say nice things about the Ness Administration, and suggest mild tweaks here and there. It goes to show how powerful Duluth’s political consensus has become

Two other races involve two candidates, meaning there’s no need for a primary. Gary Anderson will clash with former weatherman Karl Spring in the First District in a race to replace Jennifer Julsrud, whose retirement after one term took me by surprise. Spring has a recognizable name, but my only knowledge of his politics is a recollection of a global warming-denying rant a few years back; Anderson, meanwhile, appears the more likely heir to Julsrud’s left-leaning mantel. In the Third District, Em Westerlund and Barri Love will go at it to replace longtime Councilor Sharla Gardner. Both appear pretty progressive, and will have to differentiate themselves somehow in the coming months.

The most interesting race might be in the Fifth District, where two-term Councilor Jay Fosle faces three opponents in his re-election bid. Fosle has become a Council institution with his populist defenses of fiscal conservatism and some groups who normally don’t get much attention, but he’s also the most obvious target for the Duluth DFL. The DFL-endorsed candidate is Janet Kennedy, who is upbeat and has long been active in the community. It’s hard to find much on other two candidates, Allan Beaulier and Derrick Ellis; assuming it comes down to Fosle and Kennedy, it could be a compelling race.

The at-large field has four candidates fighting for two spots, so there won’t be a primary here. Elissa Hansen—disclaimer: briefly, a former colleague of mine—is an upbeat younger person who follows in the Ness-Larson mold, will likely ride to a spot on the Council. Two of the others are recognizable names. Jim Booth, a losing candidate for the County Board in the past, is the most conservative option of the four; Kriss Osbakken, meanwhile, ran on the Green Party ticket for House seat 7A last fall. The wild card here is Noah Hobbs, a young west-sider who’s very active in the community. One might say he’s looking to ride the Zack Filipovich formula of relentless campaigning energy to the Council.

School Board

Three of the ISD 709 seats are on the ballot this fall, and here, there is actually a race for control of the agenda. Three members of the five-person majority bloc that has called all the shots and tried to remove Art Johnston this past year are retiring, and the longtime minority senses an opportunity for a changing of the guard. Jane Hammerstrom Hoffman, David Kirby, and Charles Obije will require the only ISD 709 race primary to whittle the field down to two.

They’re probably least likely to make any inroads with the Second District seat currently held by Judy Seliga-Punyko. This district represents the wealthiest parts of Duluth, and the people most likely to shell out whatever funds necessary to give their kids a good education.

A real race to watch will take place in the Third District, where Nora Sandstad squares off against longtime Board critic Loren Martell. I’ve picked on Martell on here before, but of late he’s been increasingly coherent. Many of his concerns are genuine. The question is whether he can present himself as a visible champion of his cause, and shake off some of the baggage of his past involvement, which, right or wrong, is very real. Samstad, meanwhile, seems to be digging deep in her early investigations and asking all the right questions without taking sides yet. As a west side resident with young kids, she knows what’s at stake here.

The at-large race, meanwhile, involves some relative unknowns. Jim Unden, Renee Van Nett, and Alanna Oswald all have kids in west side schools, and have deep roots here. (This is Unden’s second run; his first was a mere 36 years ago.) Like Samstad, they seem frustrated with the pettiness of the current Board, know the problems the city faces, and are (for now, at least) trying to hold the high ground, with Oswald being the most pointed of the three so far. We’ll see how they distinguish themselves down the stretch, and will also require a primary.

The new board will include two more west-siders frustrated with the status quo, which could shake things up. Excepting Martell, however, it’s unclear if any of them would become immediate allies of Johnston and Harry Welty. They certainly should do a better job of listening to them than the current Board, but they would do well to stay above that squabble for as long as is humanly possible. It’s definitely time for an overhaul, but if it just turns into a fight for retribution or I-told-you-so or cleared names, who does that help? Not the students, that’s for sure.

Hey Kids, Instant Runoff Voting Is Back!

File this one under “oh no, not this again.” A year after the Duluth City Council made a hash of using instant runoff voting (IRV; also known as ranked choice voting, or RCV) and subsequently voted down a move to put it on the ballot in a laughably over-the-top hearing, a group of committed citizens have gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot. With just 50 percent of the vote, it will come to pass in Duluth.

I’m not being very subtle here, but my reaction is informed by serious investigation, not just a gut reaction to Duluth’s stumbles with a system that works without all the drama in other places. I came into the 2014 debates neutral, but subsequently got an education from some UMD professors in the realities of IRV in practice. To date, IRV’s supporters have deployed a bunch of canards about “inclusion” and “diversity” and “democracy” and give some anecdotal evidence about its success. The evidence in support of IRV ends there. The cold, hard data reveals a system that only ends up entrenching two-party rule and leads to occasional costly debacles. Cities then wind up making incessant tweaks to their system or abandon the experiment altogether. There’s never any attempt to respond to the more nuanced critiques either, except perhaps with some character assassination. The cool kids in Minneapolis have lapped this up, so Duluth must now jump on the bandwagon, and if we fail, we are a retrogressive city that obviously doesn’t care about representation. Spare me.

IRV, if it comes to pass, probably won’t be a disaster. It just won’t change much, either. It is a waste of time and energy for activists who should direct their time and money to much greater issues afflicting Duluth and the country at large. Trying to fix American democracy with IRV is like trying to fix a sinking ocean liner with some duct tape. Look at the bigger picture.

That’s all for now; I’ll check back in as we approach the primaries and the general election, once we get a better idea of who a lot of these people are.

December Duluth Roundup: Big Names on the Move

20 Dec

In this edition my semi-monthly summary of big Duluth news, I will avoid sounding like a broken record on the School Board and instead talk about two powerful Duluth women who are moving in different directions.

The first, At-Large City Councilor Emily Larson, has become the second person to officially enter next fall’s race for mayor. She immediately becomes the establishment pick to succeed the outgoing Don Ness, and the only chance she has of losing that title might be through an Yvonne Prettner-Solon candidacy. Throwing her name in the ring this early is a shrewd move that may head off potential competition from other center-left DFL figures. I’d label her the favorite (sorry, Howie), and that might not change even if YPS enters the race.

Larson is hard not to like. She is warm, considerate, open, and tireless. She’s been a relentless advocate for parks and libraries in particular, and it was no surprise to see her make her campaign announcement in front of the library. She has that charisma that can make a difference in a local campaign, and performed well across the city in her race for the Council in 2011. Larson is still a relative newcomer to politics, and is probably the youngest among the names that get tossed around. She definitely would keep the Ness vibe of youthful, optimistic energy going. Lack of executive experience is probably her most obvious shortcoming, and there is some risk of overabundant enthusiasm getting in the way of more detached assessment. But if she surrounds herself with the right people and has a good grasp on the budget, she will be a formidable figure in the race.

A bit further up the hill, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a hockey controversy is brewing. Shannon Miller, who has overseen the UMD women’s hockey program since its inception and won five national titles, will not be back next season. UMD chose not to renew her contract—which, at $215,000 when perks are factored in, is the highest of any women’s hockey coach at a public university, and probably the highest in the nation—and will hire someone new, probably for about half the salary.

UMD athletics are in a financial crunch, and has one profitable program—men’s hockey—that subsidizes the other fifteen. Miller’s behemoth of a contract stuck out like a sore thumb, and UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo has used the market as his explanation: Miller is grossly overpaid in a sport that makes nowhere near the revenue that could justify such a salary. Miller, citing equity concerns, grouses that she is not paid as much as Scott Sandelin, the men’s head coach. And so we tread into that ever-contentious territory around Title IX, and while Miller doesn’t really have a legal case here, the effects of this one could linger.

Neither side seems to be handling the affair especially well. Miller has come out guns blazing, ripping UMD for failing to even propose a pay cut, which she claims she was willing to accept. (A 50 percent pay cut, though?) She also criticized the timing, saying it was a terrible thing to heap upon her team midseason—and during finals week, no less. After first saying he was just trying to be up-front and honest with Miller, Berlo has now gone back to say the university was required to give her six months’ notice. There are stories suggesting that Miller had burned a number of bridges in the Athletics Department over the years; she’s always been one to make sure others know her opinion, loud and clear.

Miller’s departure also may not bode well for the future of UMD women’s hockey. While they are doing well this year, the program has been trending downward since its last national title in 2010; as Bruce Ciskie notes here, they are now a clear step behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, and perhaps even North Dakota. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall here, as college sports continue down the road toward the rich getting richer. Miller’s departure has upset many players, and there is some chance of a transfer exodus, or perhaps de-commitments from the recruits she has secured. In this climate, she will be a very difficult act to follow.

Another factor lurking somewhere in this decision might be Miller’s recruiting strategy. The Lady Bulldogs have long relied on a steady stream of foreign talent from Europe and Canada to beef up their lineup. The scholarships she gives these girls end up being much more costly to the university than those given to in-state players, as they need to cover out-of-state tuition. And, while understandable given the collapse of borders in most college sports, it is enough to give us Herb-Brooks-strengthen-the-base-of-the-pyramid acolytes some pause. Does importing foreign superstars really do much to grow the game locally?

Whatever the root cause, UMD women’s hockey has not been drawing big numbers to Amsoil Arena. Attendance is down. It is all tied up in the odd and frustrating state of women’s hockey, where the costs and the rat race for special training and scholarships is just as crazy as on the men’s side, only without any of the potential payouts at the end. (Here, one is reminded of the retirement rant of former University of Minnesota and Finland standout Noora Raty.)

With money playing such a prominent role, it’s unlikely there is any way UMD will recant. At this point, one can only hope that Bulldog women’s hockey proves bigger than its current coach, and can endure without her.