One Last Time: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/18/14

It was a tame last night for me in the Council Chamber, with a small crowd and a light agenda. Councilor Julsrud and President Krug were both absent, meaning Vice President Larson got to assume the center seat. There was no report from the administration, and introductory Councilor comments were limited to Councilor Gardner’s celebration of summer break.

The first public speaker was Ms. Karen Lewis, who returned to the Council Chamber to express her concerns about a smattering of public safety issues, including sinkholes and other walking hazards, Park Point zoning, and a good balance in safety lighting. There was also a second public speaker, though we’ll get to his words later.

After again tabling Councilor Hanson’s proposed DECC casino, a resolution on the sale of tax forfeited properties on Park Point came off the table for consideration. As Councilor Russ explained, there had initially been much concern over the plan to sell all of the land between 13th and 16th Streets as one parcel, so the county land department had chosen to divide it up. The land will be offered at auction sometime around November, and while neighbors will not get to bid before anyone else, they will get complete information sent to them on the opportunity. Councilor Gardner added that everything from here on out will be handled by the county, which is running the sale. The resolution passed unanimously.

Councilor Fosle pulled a resolution on stoplight funding from the consent agenda, but only so that he could give a concerned constituent a proper explanation. The $500,000 to be spent on stoplights had already been funded by the existing street light fee, and even though Councilor Folse “hated” that fee, he said it was “part of the plan all along” and would increase efficiency and save money in the long run. It too passed unanimously.

A resolution approving $2 million in funding for the Wade Stadium restoration brought out the most comments, though they were all in agreement. Councilor Hanson, a former Wade employee and baseball player whose district includes the stadium, was especially excited, noting numerous possible economic opportunities. Councilor Filipovich talked up the Wade’s historical value, while Councilor Hanson sang the praises of artificial turf; Councilor Russ was disappointed to hear a scoreboard upgrade wouldn’t happen until phase two (presumably next year). Councilor Fosle was “happy the state finally listened” to their pleas for Wade money, and was pleased to learn that the tourism tax for the St. Louis River corridor could be directed to the stadium. It passed unanimously.

Councilor Gardner gave a few more details on an ordinance detailing regulations for microdistilleries, but that was it for the meeting. Councilor Sipress talked up a resolution on a Lakewalk taskforce that would come forward in next week’s meeting, while Councilor Russ shared her excitement over the NorShor Theater’s restoration. Councilor Gardner gave an update on the Park Point beach accesses, saying there were “legitimate concerns” about the health of dunes at some of the Tier Two accesses. The plans for the Tier One accesses will move forward, while Tier Two will undergo review from a citizen group. Councilor Larson praised a pair of new bike trails, Councilor Hanson plugged a possible new sports dome, and with that, my work was done. They let me off easy at the end here.

***

The second citizen speaker was me. (Props to VP Larson for asking how to pronounce my last name before calling me up.) Here are my prepared remarks:

Good evening Councilors, I’m Karl Schuettler, and as you may know, I’ve been lurking in this hall for the past year and a half and writing about your meetings. This will be my last one for the time being, as I’m heading south for graduate school later this week. I’d just like to take a moment to thank you all for your service. I’ve had my moments of disagreement with all of you, but I’ve heard insights and profound observations out of everyone here. Duluth is fortunate to have a cohesive Council that manages to think broadly, even though nearly all of you belong to the same political party. There is always room for more opinions, but this Council has a good, healthy debate at nearly every meeting, and it listens to citizens who approach it in good faith. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I’m also encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen in this city lately. As I’ve left Duluth and come back several times, the changes that happen gradually are more striking to me than they might be to those who never leave: Duluth now seems cleaner, safer, and more vibrant, with a rich and unique local culture taking off. We’ve come a long way from the post-industrial mire of the 1980s that still afflicts so many Midwestern manufacturing centers. Still, I’ve found myself drawn to urban planning not just by enthusiasm for the new developments. Sustained growth requires a detached weighing of priorities, and must also make sure that longtime residents’ mundane needs are not neglected in the rush toward the newer, more inspiring ideas. Whatever direction it takes, Duluth needs to maintain a holistic vision of city government that encompasses both idealistic planning and popular concern about the consequences of that planning. With that vision in place, the next cycle in Duluth’s history holds great promise.

Thank you, and with any luck, I’ll be back at it here in two years’ time.

***

We’ll have to wait and see about that. Thanks to the Council for its welcome and support over the past two years, and thanks to the many of you out there who I know read this. (Hey CAO Montgomery, approve that job action form for the library delivery driver position. Seriously, they need it.) I’ll do my best to keep up from Minneapolis as time allows, though I’m not nerdy enough to drop other Monday night plans to watch a webcast. For the most part it’s been good fun, and even when it wasn’t, it was enlightening. I wish the Councilors luck, hope a few citizens can pick up the slack, and beyond that, I’ll never be too far away. We’ll be in touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the Table: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/14/14

Not much happened at City Hall on Monday night, as the meeting had the feel of a transition from one set of big issues to another. We’re done with street fees and voting methods for the time being, while the drama surrounding the attempted recall of Councilor Gardner will unfold beyond the Council Chamber. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle were absent, leaving just seven people behind the dais. (Councilor Hanson made sure to convey the Council’s support to Councilor Fosle, whose granddaughter is undergoing surgery in the Cities.) The short and sweet meeting did, however, set the stage for several future debates that should be a bit more contentious.

First up was a public hearing on the extension of the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District. This an arrangement by which downtown businesses pay an extra tax to support the safety and beautification of the city center, an aim most notably achieved by the Clean and Safe Team, whose vivid shirts blind potential evildoers. Public hearings normally involve the Council President gaveling them into a session before promptly gaveling them closed, but tonight, the hearing was the most interesting part of the meeting, such as it was. Two speakers, Ms. Barbara Perrella of Labovitz Enterprises (whose holdings include the downtown Holiday Inn) and Ms. Kristi Stokes of the Greater Downtown Council, spoke in favor. They said the benefits of the program justified the cost and celebrated the successful public-private partnership. Mr. Craig Guzzo of Duluth Plumbing Supplies had some qualified concerns, however, including the length of time used to determine the tax, worries about duplication of duties with such organizations as Visit Duluth and the Chamber of Commerce, and the apparent lack of representation for Michigan Street businesses on the advisory council.

Councilors Gardner, Larson, and Krug all acknowledged Mr. Guzzo’s worries when the related resolutions and ordinance came up. They all said that there would be a serious effort to avoid duplication, and Councilor Gardner promised to look into the representation question. Councilor Larson said that over 75 percent of downtown businesses had expressed support for the Service District, a level of support well above the necessary threshold for renewal. The resolutions and ordinance all passed unanimously, with Councilor Gardner channeling her inner Jim Stauber by “recommending approval” on all of them.

Duluth received an award at the start of the meeting, as Mr. Paul Austin of Conservation Minnesota gave the Council a nice chunk of glass commemorating its status as a Legacy Destination for its use of public money to support conservation and the arts everywhere, from the St. Louis River corridor to the Miller Creek trout stream to restoring moose habitat. The two citizen speakers were all familiar faces as well, with Mr. Phil Fournier of AFSCME Local 66 back to complain about the city’s alleged refusal to discuss grievances and avoid arbitration. He complained that these things used to be settled in-house, and said he had polled many city employees who had similar concerns but feared retaliation of if they were to speak out. The Council then tabled a whole bunch of things, with reasons including the need for a Committee of the Whole, an attempt to align resolutions with ordinances, and a request from the absent Councilor Julsrud.

The only other measure to generate any real discussion was a lane change on College Street, which removes a lane in each direction so as to calm traffic and create a bike lane and more parking. This wasn’t controversial, but Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment to temporarily scrap a plan to include “bike boxes” at the intersections with Kenwood and 19th Ave. East. While supportive of biking, Councilor Sipress said that the Council should investigate the need for the boxes—areas in front of traffic at stoplights in which bicycles can wait before making safer left turns—before imposing them, as they prevent motorists from turning right on red. Councilor Larson and CAO Montgomery both got on board with amendment, saying there were many possible options to make biking easier, and there was no need to rush into the boxes when they could be painted on at a later date without any trouble. The amendment and resolution both went through unanimously, and the city will monitor bike usage on College Street.

Councilor Filipovich pulled a couple of infrastructure projects from the consent agenda so as to give them some love—yes, we really are fixing bad roads!—and Councilor Hanson was upbeat about the purchase of some railway land near Wade Stadium, which he figured would open up the area to possible future development. The site of the formal Central High School was also re-zoned, a move that will hopefully help the school district sell it. With that, the Council wrapped up a quick and painless meeting.

There are plenty of things on the docket for future meetings, though. Here’s a tour of several of them:

Hartley Nature Center Master Plan According to Councilor Larson, this will come forward next week.

Duluth Public Library Building Councilor Larson also plans to introduce a resolution that will begin a thorough assessment of the main branch building of the library, which has some issues.

Annexation of part of Midway Township This ordinance, read for the first time Monday, will be the next chapter in an ongoing war between Duluth and Proctor over some land with development potential to the west of the two cities.

West Side Renewal First off, the Council took a first step toward approving its matching funds for projects at Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain, which received state bonding money, on Monday. Next up is a related ordinance, to be followed by a Committee of the Whole on a broader vision for the St. Louis River corridor later this summer. Councilor Larson made it clear she wants more input from the neighborhoods before moving too far ahead on anything. A Gary-New Duluth small area plan also passed without debate on Monday, with Councilor Gardner thanking the neighborhood for its involvement.

The DECC Casino First proposed by Councilor Hanson last meeting, this ambitious plan to recoup some of the lost revenue from the Fon du Luth Casino by turning part of the DECC into a competing casino will wait until after a closed Committee of the Whole meeting in August, if not longer. It will stay on the table for the time being. There is no real rush, as it requires consideration by the state legislature, which would not happen until its 2015 session.

That should give us plenty of time to mull over the pros and cons of the proposal. Obviously, revenue is good, but this project will have to escape the perception that this is merely a jab at the Fon du Lac tribe, and also that it promotes a vice at a time when the city is otherwise often doing war with vices. For my part, I also have serious doubts about the venue. Sure, the DECC is somewhat underused, but it’s also a unique and important event space; its loss would be a problem, and sticking a casino down there would further overcrowd the waterfront district. It would likely take a drastic remodeling no matter what. If we’re serious about this, why not kill two birds with one stone and integrate it into a redesigned St. Louis River corridor?

That’s all I’ve got for this one. If only tomorrow night’s School Board meeting would be this painless…

Defending Gardner and Succeeding Ness

It’s been a lovely 4th of July weekend in Duluth. While any attempt to bike on the Lakewalk will bring about plenty of cursing under one’s breath about meandering tourists and those God-awful four-wheeled bike cars, it’s still a brilliant time of year for this city, teeming with life and filled with people in all their fascinating messiness. (One last bit of snark, though: did anyone else think the lit-up bridge bore an unfortunate resemblance to the French flag?) At any rate, I’ll wrap up this weekend with that most American of activities: arguing about politics!

With a three-week gap between public meetings, I figured I’d venture a few comments on the two juicier bits of political news to come up in the city over this past week. The first is the recall campaign directed at 3rd District City Councilor Sharla Gardner, a push led by Park Point residents upset over her willingness to defend a plan to re-route the S-curve on the Point.

I have a soft spot for the populist instinct in politics, whatever the flavor. The people at the top should never get too comfortable, and as someone who likes to think things through as thoroughly as possible, I’m rarely one to dismiss people as mere NIMBYs. As I wrote after the meeting on the Point plan, this is local politics in all its glory and messiness…and it worked. There was enough of an uproar that the plan fell flat. And yet, now, people call for Gardner’s head. The victory, apparently, must be complete and total.

The leaders of the revolt, who unconvincingly tried to plead reluctance in the initial News Tribune article, contend that Gardner has not represented Park Point’s interests. (Their words before the Council on May 27 were anything but reluctant, but instead indignant and obstreperous.) That may or may not be true—Gardner had a thorough rebuttal in today’s DNT that effectively shredded the sloppy and unconvincing case made by her accusers—but it’s no grounds for her ouster. Politicians are not elected to ape their constituents’ every whim. We elect people, not platforms. Sharla Gardner was elected to govern as she sees fit, and people will have to learn to deal with that until the next election. If there were a real ethical violation here, or something more sinister, okay—and in that case, a councilor’s removal would likely be taken up by her peers or perhaps the courts—but there just isn’t. In this case, yeah, Park Point, you’re being a bunch of NIMBYs. (I am writing this post from the home of a family member on the Point, so I have some knowledge of the situation.)

All of this confirms a growing sense that the recall is among the most obnoxious tools available in democratic politics. The push for a recall stems from a desperate notion that change, any change, will somehow be better. Instead, the political climate seems to deteriorate from there. Sometimes we’re just on the losing side of debates (or, in the case of the S-curve and even in the case of Art Johnston, the winning side that cannot handle dissent). Smart political players don’t lash out viciously in these situations; they build a base for the next election, so as to turn the tide and create a more positive campaign; a campaign not just predicated on rejecting the past and present, but with a substantive vision for the future. For democracy to work, we need to respect the wishes of voters, even if we think the voters were voting against their own self-interest.

Gardner’s views and politics were never any great secret. She’s been elected twice, including an unopposed re-election in 2011, which means that any opposition to her has either been thwarted, or suffered from a terrible failure to mobilize. She’s often rather long-winded—the comprehensiveness of her defense of the S-curve plan was likely what set a few people off—but she did honestly think she was doing what was best for the city, and she always has the courage of her conviction. The notion that she didn’t fight for the loss of the fire hall also seems wrongheaded; whatever else she may be, Gardner is not one to give up a fight, and she is just one person on a Council of nine that was unconvinced. The critics misread her motives, overestimate her power, and have an entitled conception of democratic politics. There just isn’t any logical reason for this campaign at this time. Save it for the 2015 election, people.

Of course, I have few illusions about logic ruling things in politics; theories often only make sense from a thousand feet up in the air. I know it’s wrong to expect subtlety and careful political calculation out of the average citizen. (That line sounds elitist, but this is reality, and in many ways, I have a certain envy for people who don’t spend much time peddling in the nuances of politics.) The aggrieved parties will get to launch their little campaign and enjoy their day in the Park Point sun. This risk is always present in democratic politics, with the angry partisans waging total war by claiming they somehow represent the repressed or ignored. The system works because most people, thankfully, don’t consider these things life-or-death matters. Can we please just enjoy these beautiful days on the beach instead of seeing this vendetta through to its painful conclusion?

The second newsworthy bit was the revelation that Mayor Don Ness is leaning against running for a third term. Given his popularity and the unity of Duluth’s center and left behind him, he’d likely be a shoo-in to win, and, of course, plenty of people around him want him to pursue higher offices. But, in typical Ness fashion, he’s deflected most of those projections, and seems more content to play the family man.

We’ll see if that holds up when decision time comes, but I, for one, applaud his stance. A smart politician knows he is never bigger than his project, and Ness would be wise to make sure his vision for Duluth—which will outlive his mayoralty no matter what—is well-positioned to outlast him. In most things, it is better to go out on top than to hang on until one has outlived one’s welcome. I wouldn’t be opposed to a third Ness run, but fresh blood—as long as it really is fresh, and not the same old stuff stashed away in a vial in a back corner of City Hall—would make sure his project doesn’t stagnate along the same old questions and battle lines.

I haven’t always agreed with Don Ness, and as with anything, I’m sure I could pick apart his record if I wanted to expend the time and effort. But from a long-term perspective, his six and a half years have probably been the most momentous mayoralty in recent Duluth history. For the first time in my life, the city has a bit of optimism about it, and that should probably be seen through, and taken as far as it can go. There is a window of energy here that ought to be milked for all it’s worth, and Ness is doing that, daring to reach west and plan for the future. It may not turn Duluth into some shining beacon of a modern city, but the gains need not be wholesale to be substantial.

The cynics and critics still have an important role to play. If the coalition gets too comfortable, it will stagnate, and I’d welcome alternative visions and substantive debate. But realistically, and barring a drastic change in the local political landscape, whoever gets elected in 2015 is going to agree with Ness on most things. The day when the Duluth DFL monolith breaks down may come—there are cracks in the walls—but I don’t think we’re there yet. The real question, then, becomes one of how this project will evolve, and what wrinkles a new candidate might bring to Ness’s Duluth. A race to succeed him in 2015 would likely be very competitive, even if not terribly diverse in its political views, and that could inject a healthy dose of life to the system. A city with a dominant party needs that sort of internal debate, lest the vision atrophy. Those outside that party, on the other hand, need to come up with a positive platform, instead of simply raging at the people in power who they believe have wronged them.

Edit: Aaron Brown, who has an excellent Range-based blog on northeastern Minnesota, hits many of the same notes on Ness here, along with some of the points about living in community that I’ve repeated over and over again. Yes, yes, a million times yes. There’s a reason “culture” comes before “politics” in the tagline at the top of this blog.

On Street Repair Fees: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/23/14

The Duluth City Council began its somewhat noble work Monday in a rare respite from the permanent bank of fog that has settled over downtown Duluth. The Councilors were in a cheery mood despite a rather torturous meeting last time around, and the agenda promised a resolution to a long but rather unenthusiastic debate on funding street repair in Duluth. It was the sort of thing everyone wanted done but no one wanted to pay for, and no one seemed to find the solution all that palatable, but the desire to do something prevailed.

But first, the rest of the meeting. There were two general citizen speakers. Mr. Loren Martell gave one of the more intelligent takes on his usual spiel, chiding local officials for their “false sense of urgency” in rushing through proposals that probably need more vetting. Mr. Michael Chelseth, a rising junior at Duluth East, updated the Council on the tennis court project he is spearheading for Washington Square, saying grant-matching or partial funding will likely prove necessary.

Councilor Fosle recused himself from a pair of resolutions concerning liquor licenses at events his band will play at, and Councilor Larson pulled a few more to wait for an ordinance on the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District next meeting, but the rest of the consent agenda went through. Ms. Eve Graves, who has applied to turn an East Hillside home into a “vacation dwelling unit,” gave a brief explanation of her plan for “a tree-hugger clientele” that would be carefully vetted. After Councilor Gardner said that Ms. Graves had assuaged some of the worries she’d heard from neighbors about the impact on the neighborhood, that resolution passed unanimously.

A large contingent of city planners and developers were on hand to back the proposed hotel and marina development on Pier B, the currently blighted lot across a slip from Bayfront Park. A few of the Councilors who had some reservations about such projects spoke in its favor, led by Councilor Sipress, who praised the lack of direct cash subsidies, the much-needed repairs to the slip and site cleanup, the public access, and use of union labor and wage guarantees. Councilor Russ deemed Pier B a judicious use of tax-increment financing (TIF), of which she is not normally a fan, and President Krug added that the project has “come a long way since it was just a strip mall.” It passed unanimously.

This set the stage for the main act of the evening, which was the debate over a proposed fee to finance street repair. There were seven citizen speakers, all opposed to the measure, and five of them repeat performers. Mr. Jim Booth ordered the Council to eliminate vague “amenities,” while Ms. Sue Connor tried to hash out the details on the possible-double tax and wondered why this was different from the street light fee they’d all railed against at the previous meeting. Another speaker suggested a hard line against the Fon du Luth Casino to recover lost revenue, while Mr. Bob Woods made the accurate observation that the “councilors’ facial expressions are half the fun” of  coming to the meetings, and another man made an analogy involving geese. Chamber of Commerce President David Ross joined the critics to denounce the disproportionate impact of the fee on businesses, with even small businesses charged several times the amount of a home, and large businesses charged at an exponential level.

Councilor Fosle asked a few procedural questions that outlined what was at stake: the fee would raise $2.8 million in a full year ($1.2 million in a pro-rated 2014), and would need to be re-approved in the annual fee ordinance that normally comes before the Council every November or December (including this year), or else it would reset to zero. Councilor Fosle also spoke in opposition to the measure, calling it a “cover-up” by the administration that would allow them to hide behind the Council. “Don’t blame the casino,” he added, noting former Councilor Jim Stauber’s insights on street repair funding, and threw out a few vague ideas for raising funds. He said the issue hadn’t received much press (debatable, though there wasn’t exactly a huge media rush before tonight’s vote), and that the Council would be able to ram this through despite citizen objections since they’d dismiss so many of the speakers as the same old people raising the same old complaints. He was joined in dissent by Councilor Filipovich, who repeated his claim from the previous meeting: fees ought to be discussed during the regular budget process.

Several Councilors then set out to defend the fee, though they showed about as much enthusiasm for it as they might for a lobotomy. Everyone was careful to thank the citizens for their input and acknowledge various concerns. Councilor Russ said she’d prefer a tax increase to a fee and complained that it only covered half of what needed to be done, but concluded by saying “it’s hard to find a different way.” Councilors Larson and Gardner mounted a defense of “amenities” or “quality of life” expenditures, saying the investments are necessary, and that the outcry had been far worse several years earlier when the Council did move to slash Parks and Rec and library services. Councilors Sipress and Julsrud emphasized that this was only a stopgap until the city found a better overall solution, and that they would not renew it continually. “There’s a sunset for my vote” in favor of the fee, said Councilor Sipress, while Councilor Juslrud complained of U.S. infrastructure construction in Iraq and Afghanistan while federal spending (preferably funded by a gas tax) languished in the States.

Councilor Filipovich spoke for a second time to ask for “big ideas” to solve the problem, and expressed optimism that some could be found; CAO Montgomery rained on his parade and said it would be “risky to assume this,” and that another solution was “just not there” for the time being, given the “totality of the issue.” Councilor Filipovich peppily urged the CAO to have some faith, while Councilor Fosle expressed his complete lack of faith in a possible future renegotiation of the fee. Councilor Hanson thanked Councilor Filipovich for his “courage,” and applauded the city for doing its best in the budget crunch; he said there was “no hidden money anywhere,” and took shots at the two previous administrations for their handling of employee health benefits and street repair funding. He then announced that he was launching a plan to convert the DECC into a for-profit, city-run casino. Duluth: the Vegas of the Midwest!

In the end, the new fee passed 6-3, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, and Hanson in opposition. The related resolution and ordinance that set the fee and allowed for its collection passed by the same margin. The Council then wrapped up its evening, and for once a Duluth governmental body wrapped up its meeting when there was still daylight. There was some sense that they’d done something just for the sake of doing something, but lots of people are unhappy with street repair; the lack of diversity among the opposition speakers suggests most people are reluctantly on board with the fee. Still, the invocation throughout can’t be emphasized enough: this is not a long-term fix, and while the city can certainly pursue state or federal solutions, it cannot rely on them. Street repair is an unending problem in this city, and will likely remain in the fog for the foreseeable future. The debate will go on, and that’s not a bad thing.

A Meeting of Epic Length: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/9/14

The Duluth City Council had a marathon for the ages on Monday night, enduring 4:20 of debate. (There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I won’t touch it.) There range of issues on the table ran the gamut, and in turn, there was a large, diverse crowd on hand to speak on many of the agenda items. For sanity’s sake I’m going to chop this post up by issue, rather than turn it into a dissertation; clarity will take priority over my aesthetic sensibilities so as to make sense of it all.

Introduction and Issues Inspiring Minimal Discussion

General community speakers included a Duluth East student announcing her presence and interest in more room for young people to participate in politics, a woman who worried about sinkholes, and a man with no apparent interest in being taken seriously. Councilor Fosle pulled a series of resolutions awarding parks grants and creating (or with the possibility of creating) new staffing positions so he could vote against them; they all passed, 8-1. There were no reports or updates on general issues of any significance, and nothing came off the consent agenda that hadn’t already been pulled.

Street Light Fees

First up was a plan to sunset the city’s unpopular street light fee, which had been tabled at the previous meeting. The resolution and related ordinance on the agenda aimed to phase out the fee by the end of 2018, but Councilor Fosle, the fee’s most vocal opponent, moved an amendment to slide that date up to 2015, repeating his stance that the fee constituted a double-tax. The amendment generated zero momentum; while Councilors Russ, Spiress, and Krug were sympathetic, they said the city couldn’t cut out that revenue so quickly without finding a replacement for lost revenue. The amendment failed, 1-8.

Supporters of the fee’s elimination then made their case. Councilor Gardner said the 2018 deadline was a long enough time frame to find an alternative, and Councilor Sipress explained his philosophical opposition to fees, which he called the “most unfair” type of tax. He later expressed support for a property tax increase to cover lost fee money, and several other Councilors signed on to that plan. Councilor Fosle did not, but he also joined the war against fees, reminding the audience of the time when Duluth made late night TV jokes for an aborted plan to impose a fee to fund fire departments and law enforcement.

Councilor Filipovich dissented, saying the discussion should be part of the annual budget process, and Councilor Larson worried about passing the burden off on future Councils and possible cuts to “quality of life services” such as libraries. The most vocal opposition, however, came from CAO Montgomery, who was as pointed as he has ever been. He was fine with the discussion, but said it should be part of the budget process, and that the lack of a funding plan ran counter to the “path to financial predictability and stability” that the administration has so desperately sought. A levy increase to cover the resultant shortfall “would not be modest,” and the city only had so much wiggle room in the amount it can levy while still covering everything else. President Krug agreed that it was “not responsible,” and thought the issue was being used to “teach a lesson on fees.”

Councilor Julsrud “completely disagree[d].” Fees, she insisted, are a “short-term fix,” not a long-term piece of the budget, and she said basic services should come through the levy. In the end, her logic prevailed by the narrowest of margins: the repeal of the fee passed 5-4, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, Julsrud, Russ, and Sipress making up the piecemeal coalition.

Street Repair Fees

The Council then moved from one fee to another and took up a proposed fee to pay for street repairs. There were nine citizen speakers on the topic, all opposed, though they came at it from different angles. Some, like Councilor Sipress in the previous exchange, claimed a fee was an unfair and regressive; others, such as Mr. Joe Kleiman, preferred a fee since it spread the burden, but opposed the heavier toll this particular fee would impose upon businesses. One speaker had issues with the process, and another suggested the city strong-arm the Fon Du Luth Casino into submission so as to regain its lost revenue.

Councilor Gardner then moved to introduce an amendment, which aimed to lessen the amount of double-taxing by limiting the assessment in the first year of the fee. There was much confusion over the language of the amendment, which led to an agonizingly long bureaucratic exchange, as amendments were made to the amendment and amendments made to the amendment to the amendment before all of the amendments were pulled and one clean one was put forward. Councilor Julsrud was its most vocal opponent, wondering about costs and saying it was only “a drop in the bucket” of the larger street picture. CAO Montgomery likewise grumbled about lost revenue, but while it would involve work, he said the amendment was “doable” when pressed by Councilor Filipovich. The amendment passed 5-4, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson, and Krug in support. This change was substantial enough that the ordinance must be read before the Council again at the next meeting, so the attached resolution was thus tabled as well.

Spirit Mountain

In a brief but blunt discussion, Councilor Julsrud used a resolution aiming to increase Spirit Mountain’s line of credit to “crack the whip” on its management. She complained about all of the red ink in its financials and said that “weather can’t be a repeated excuse” for an institution that must necessarily deal with winter weather. Councilor Hanson read a letter from a constituent that took Spirit Mountain to task for its failure to make payments in recent years, and noted the drastic increase in its credit limit. CAO Montgomery tried to explain the situation some, citing the particularly harsh winter as a problem, and talked up the fiscal chops of Spirit’s incoming director. Everyone echoed each other a lot, Councilor Fosle suggested they give the new director some time before grilling her, and Councilor Hanson made several abuses of figurative language. The resolution passed unanimously.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

One might think that electoral systems would not be an issue that inspires heated manifestos and bitter divisions. One would be wrong.

First, Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment that altered the language of the resolution, toning down its explicit recommendation for adopting IRV and simply asking the charter commission to study it. It also removed a timeline that sought to fast-track the charter change for a November ballot initiative. The Councilors noted that the 60 day allowance for charter commission review would likely allow enough time to get the measure on the ballot this fall if approved, so Councilor Sipress’s amendment passed fairly easily. Only Councilor Fosle spoke against it, calling it a “safeguard for a flawed system.”

Eleven citizen speakers came forward on IRV. Seven, including five locals and two people from FairVote Minnesota, an IRV advocacy group, spoke in favor of its implementation. They claimed a wide array of benefits, including greater representation of underrepresented groups, the elimination of high-cost and low-turnout primaries, and relative simplicity once voters are educated. Several also pointed to the success of the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral elections, which they said had been “more civil” due to the need for candidates to court second choice votes.

Three UMD math and statistics professors also spoke on the issue, and gave a somewhat less rosy picture of IRV. They said that, despite the shiny packaging, IRV does not perform as well under scrutiny. They cited flaws in the algorithm that lead to “voter regret,” IRV’s tendency to lock in two-party systems, and data from several cities with more extensive experience than Minneapolis that had moved away from IRV. They recommended further discussion of possible alternatives and offered to further educate the public. (One has offered to meet with me, so there will be some follow-up on this in the not-so-distant future.) A final speaker in opposition (unaffiliated with the professors) worried about the fast pace of implementation and thought the elderly and disabled would struggle to make sense of IRV.

Despite the easy passage of Councilor Sipress’s amendment, several Councilors still had strong reservations about implementing IRV. (It took a while before Councilor Hanson brought it up, but it was clear that the Council’s flailing attempt to use IRV back in February was hanging over the debate.) Councilor Julsrud mounted a defense of the primary system, saying it used highly engaged citizens to weed candidates who are not serious, and that IRV’s large election fields tend to favor “big personalities.” She suggested any move to IRV should be made in conjunction with the school board and the county so as to avoid confusion. Councilor Filipovich said he became “more skeptical” the more he learned about IRV, and that there was a fundamental question of how people’s votes are counted at play. Several Councilors also disliked the process, saying it should come from citizen demand rather than from above, and that there was no demand for change or explanation of “why now.” (This strikes me as by far the weakest counterargument; there were clearly citizens in the room who supported IRV and were trying to get things moving, and this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs a specific catalyst to get off the ground. If it’s properly vetted [an important ‘if’] and people approve, then go for it.)

Councilor Gardner took exception to these objections. If people really wanted to learn more, she said, they should send the recommendation on to the charter commission and let it do the work. This was their opportunity to learn more, she claimed, and it would be “closed-minded” to cut off the debate with a ‘no’ vote. Councilor Larson concurred, and insisted the conversation on IRV needed to continue.

As the debate went on, the Council’s professionalism went out the window. Councilor Fosle went into loose cannon mode, intimating that someone must be making money off the scheme to implement IRV; he also shot off about the number of speakers from Minneapolis, claiming he does not represent them. (Councilor Hanson repeated this; President Krug, an IRV champion, indignantly offered to provide addresses for all of the speakers.) Councilor Filipovich spoke far more pointedly that usual in opposition to IRV; while within the bounds of regular Council debate, President Krug tried to hurry him along, ostensibly because it was a long night and his comments weren’t all specific to the narrow intent of the resolution. Councilor Hanson continued to push her buttons with an attempt to ask questions, and while I agree that his debating style is often scattered, aimless and even grating at times (regardless of the issue), one got the clear sense that President Krug’s frustration with him had as much to do with his stance as with his method.

Councilor Hanson and President Krug traded barbs, with Hanson saying he felt like he was “being scolded by a schoolteacher,” Krug cutting him off, and Hanson saying this proved his point. The push for IRV failed 4-5, with support from Councilors Gardner, Krug, Larson, and Sipress. After the vote, President Krug topped everything off with a silly, grandstanding speech, saying “shame on you, Councilors,” for voting the proposal down, and that “you’ll have to sleep with that tonight.” Whatever the merits of a case, telling one’s colleagues that they should be ashamed of themselves has got to be among the most counterproductive options available after one has lost a close vote. President Krug leads the Council with authority, and there is much to be said for that, but she has shown an occasional tendency to allow her opinions to color her leadership and use her presidency as a bully pulpit. Her outburst at the end only confirmed this sneaking suspicion. I think (and hope) this is just an unintentional display of passion, but no matter what, it is both obvious and painful to watch. There is enough blame to go around, though: the Council lost its sense of perspective on this one.

Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Landmark Status

It was past 10:30 by the time the Council started in on an ordinance that would preserve the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial as a heritage preservation landmark, but seven speakers stuck around to support granting it that status. They cited its role as a gathering site, its importance in soothing past wounds, and its stimulation of reflection. Mr. David Woodward of the Heritage Preservation Commission explained in detail how the memorial qualified due to its place in a historic district and symbolic value, despite its relative newness. Councilor Gardner was most struck by the comments of Mr. Roger Grégoire, who said he knew of no other memorial of this type in the world, and applauded Duluth’s “extraordinary” efforts to seek “redemption.” In a vintage display of Duluthianism, if there is such a thing, Councilor Gardner said the process to establish the memorial “just seemed very natural.” The ordinance passed unanimously.  (A special Patient Cycle Award goes to speaker Portia Johnson’s teenage son, who stayed by her side through the entire night without any signs of restlessness.)

Rockridge Zoning and Conclusion

The one last thing on the agenda of some note was the re-zoning of the former Rockridge Elementary site. Mr. Mark Irving, a neighbor, stuck out the entire night to thank all parties for their work in finding a solution for everyone. It passed unanimously and without debate, prompting a sigh and a laugh from Mr. Kerry Leider of the School District, who had waited it out in the chance that something did come up. After that, I was the only person left in the audience chamber, doodling deliriously as the Council plowed through a heap of unanimously approved ordinances. In the closing comments, there was one final back-and-forth on the handling of the IRV debate between Councilor Fosle and President Krug, with Fosle saying Robert’s Rules of Order had not been followed, Krug saying the Council has a precedent of not following them religiously, and Fosle concluding by saying, “but we don’t cut people off, either.” That did cut off the debate, though, and everyone headed for the exits in exhaustion.

Planning Park Point: Duluth City Council Notes, 5/27/14

I’ve sat through a year’s worth of Duluth City Council meetings now, and in that time, there has been plenty of tedium and mundane small-town political talk that inspires little community interest. There are some nights, however, when the community turns out in force to weigh in on a certain issue, and when the gravity of the debate can overwhelm those involved. Monday night was one of those nights.

It was standing room only in the Council Chamber, and yours truly was wedged between a whole bunch of people wearing caution tape and an unsympathetic armrest at the end of the pew. At least 20 employees from the city’s Public Works and Utilities departments lined the edges of the room, dressed in their blue uniforms; their speaker, Phil Fournier, gave a very brief demand that the City honor its contract and discuss seniority issues. (This took the Council by surprise, and both Mr. Fournier and CAO Montgomery promised to share their sides of the story.) There was also a long Committee of the Whole meeting before the formal meeting, in which the Development Authority, supported by a host of developers, gave their initial pitch for a hotel and related redevelopment along the currently vacant Pier B by Bayfront Park.

The real drama on Monday, though, all had to do with the Park Point small area plan. This plan, tabled at the previous meeting, had been separated into four individual resolutions. The most contentious of their number moved the current S-curve—the point at which the main flow of traffic shifts off Lake Avenue and on to Minnesota Avenue—from 13th Street to 8th Street. The second was an alternative to the first, which left the S-curve as is but made changes to 8th Street and Minnesota Ave. between 8th and 13th Streets to accommodate more traffic. While there were a variety of reasons given for the proposed changes, the most prominent involved further development along Minnesota Ave., as a hotel is about to open there, and there is potential for further expansion. (Still, any official changes would not take place until “at least 2021,” according to Community Development Manager Keith Hamre.) The third was a relatively benign resolution on utilities infrastructure, and the fourth provided more detail on public waterfront accesses, designating three “tier one” beach accesses for heavy public use at Franklin Park, Lafayette Square, and the beachouse and eight negotiable “tier two” accesses along both sides of the Point designed with locals in mind. To further clarify the tier two accesses, Councilor Gardner added a pair of amendments, one which barred these accesses from being advertised, and one that called for more discussion on the location of the access points.

(Full disclosure before I go any further: I have a family member who lives between the Lift Bridge and the S-curve, though said family member is a renter and is unlikely to still be living in this location when any proposed plan would go into effect, and has not voiced a strong opinion on the plan.)

There were nineteen speakers on the various Park Point resolutions, and only one, Garner Moffat, the first speaker and a member of the Planning Commission, was in support of them. He said the proposals were a reasonable compromise, and also offered several alternatives for the Council to choose from. The other eighteen, while united in their opposition, made for a diverse cast; they ranged from the indignant (Mr. Mike Medlin) to the questioning (Mr. Burke Edgerton) to those concerned about safety (Ms. Melanie Goldish) to the humorous (Mr. Roy Marlow). The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” made several appearances, and several people wondered why current Minnesota Avenue tenants such as the Army Corps of Engineers had not been consulted. A few worried that an S-curve closer to the Lift Bridge would cause more congestion, as people wouldn’t be able to see what was going on; others noted that the alternative plan to simply alter the streets had been last-minute and poorly vetted. Many cited deep roots on Park Point, sharing personal and family histories dating back to the day the first carriage crossed the Lift Bridge. While the tone was largely respectful—several speakers, including Mr. Bill Burns, thanked the Council for its responsiveness to questions and willingness to visit the affected area—it was obvious that any changes would have to be forced past an army of angry residents.

After the overwhelming display of opposition, someone had to take up the unenviable task of defending the plan, and Councilor Gardner seized the opportunity. She said the plan was the result of a year and a half of hard work, was “halfway decent,” and sought to preserve the neighborhood near the bridge in the event of future construction, not destroy it. She pointed out that keeping things the same may not be possible if traffic continues to increase on the Point—which it likely will—and that it was her goal to route traffic toward commercial activity. Her suggestion that opposition to the plan was not as uniform as it seemed because proponents were scared of speaking out inspired some derisive laughter and comments from the crowd. President Krug rose to her feet, banged her gavel, demanded respect after the Council had respected the citizens’ views, and said she would order any further rabble-rousers to leave; a handful of people promptly left.  (While I don’t doubt that the majority of people who care do not support the re-design, the reaction pretty much proved Councilor Gardner’s point. Who would want to endure that sort of reception?)

Most of the Councilors were respectful of the planning process, but slowly raised doubts. Even Councilor Sipress, who supported creating a small area plan for re-routing the S-curve, made it clear he would not vote for such a change if it came before the Council in the near future. Councilor Russ said her research suggested a change would not devalue affected houses if and when the city had to seize them to reroute traffic, but still was skeptical. The most pointed critic, unsurprisingly, was Councilor Fosle, who said the changes would put citizens in a “stranglehold” and that the city should not do anything until it is a “must.” He also made the suggestion (welcomed by Mr. Hamre) that the city convert the little-used tot lot at Franklin Park into a parking lot so as to accommodate more people at the 13th Street beach. President Krug suggested another such ad hoc fix, saying street parking on Lake Avenue north of the S-curve could be moved to the lake side of the avenue to make it easier to turn out of the side streets leading away from the development on Minnesota Avenue.

The debate also went to the core of several Councilors’ beliefs. “This is exactly why I ran for the Council,” said Councilor Fosle at the start of his comments. Councilor Julsrud asked deep questions, wondering “what does leadership look like?” in situations such as these. In this case, she declared, something that caused so much “consternation” ought to be sent back to the administration. Councilor Filipovich repeated his oft-used line on how “decisions are made by those who show up,” and both he and Councilor Russ pointed out that it could be brought back even if voted down. Councilor Sipress defended the very notion of long-term planning, making it clear he was no fan of extensive Park Point development, but that a re-routed S-curve would be a sensible contingency in the event of a future “traffic catastrophe” if the development continued. Councilor Larson, who is normally relentlessly positive, questioned the cost of the project. President Krug, who rarely goes against recommendations of city staff, came out in opposition, worrying about the narrow vote in the Planning Commission and the abruptness of the rerouted curve. Only Councilor Hanson kept his silence, though his votes—four ‘nos’—made his opinions abundantly clear.

In the end, the plan to re-route the S-curve failed 2-6-1, with Councilors Gardner and Sipress in support; Councilor Julsrud abstained, saying she didn’t want to vote against a good plan but wanted further discussion, and would rather it had been tabled. The alternative plan to widen streets drew even less support, with Council Russ as the lone ‘yes’ vote, and Councilor Julsrud again abstaining. The piecemeal approach to the plan did produce some results, though, as the utility infrastructure resolution and the shorefront access routes both passed 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Hanson in opposition. Exhausted but mostly satisfied, the Park Pointers made their way to the exits.

The Council, however, soldiered on, and while it tabled everything related to a possible street repair fee to next meeting so that the resolutions would come up at the same time as several related ordinances, there were a few speakers who stuck it out to voice their displeasure. Ms. Bev Massey wondered what the citizens would be taxed for next time, while a Mr. Woods (presented without first name) lashed out about unanswered questions and financial mismanagement. Most everything else sailed through unanimously and with minimal debate, though Councilor Fosle did lodge his usual protest vote against the purchase of a new, expensive vehicle.

After the three-hour marathon, the Council pulled things together. Councilor Larson was happy to announce that Council meetings are now live streamed online (mwahaha, now they’ll never be rid of me), and Councilor Fosle invited everyone to an ATV training later in the week. Then, finally, the Councilors could exhale—at least until they take up street repairs in two weeks.

It was not a night that made it easy to maintain perspective. The Park Point plan was an issue that could seem like a life-or-death issue for some, and a silly waste of time for others. Perhaps it’s a display of civic engagement at its finest, and the power of people to make their voices heard; perhaps it’s NIMBYism at its worst, with a mob shouting down a fairly cautious and forward-thinking plan. It’s a reminder that democracy is never clean and efficient, for good or ill, and while I’m one of the bigger proponents of local-level politics you’ll find, it was also a reminder that these town meetings are often not idyllic exercises in harmonious community-building. It’s hard, it’s controversial, and someone is going to come away unhappy in the end.

Still, smart politicians know how to ride the waves of public sentiment, and the Council did so relatively well on Monday. It was never made entirely clear why the plan was necessary at this particular point in time—surely if current traffic patterns prove unsustainable, changes could be made in the future with or without a 2014 small area plan—and the hurry to push it through doomed things from the start. While a careful review suggested the plan wasn’t half as malicious as several of the speakers made it out to be, it had lost in the court of public opinion before it ever really came forward, and was effectively dead upon arrival. I’m not sure that more public engagement was necessarily the answer here—the public was obviously pretty engaged, and the people most affected were never going to be made happy. That said, the Council was wise to pull the issue apart into separate pieces and salvage some discussions for future planning, particularly on the beach access questions, which even the vocally opposed Councilor Fosle noted contained good “safeguards” for citizen input. Between those discussions and the eternal allure of further development along Park Point, these issues are never going to die. Future Councils will simply have to navigate these choppy waters as things develop, and ideally, Monday night’s concessions coupled with a handful of successful resolutions will be enough to sustain the necessary dialogue.

Let’s Argue About Downtown Housing: Duluth City Council Notes, 5/12/14

City Hall was, apparently, the place to be in Duluth on Monday night. Most of the residents of Park Point relocated themselves to the Council Chamber, with a number wearing red “danger” tape armbands in protest of the proposed small area plan for the spit of land; it looked to be the most raucous crowd in years. President Krug, however, decided to deprive us of all the drama by announcing the plan would be tabled before the meeting even started. The Park Pointers moved their powwow out into the hallway, though a sizeable crowd remained in the chamber. The tabling of the measure meant we only had to deal with a 2-hour, 45-minute meeting instead of going past midnight.

As has been the case recently, there was a substantial, eclectic group of citizen speakers. Two came to talk up a “meet on the street” sort of block party planned for 3rd St. in Lincoln Park on July 13, where they hoped to build community; another highlighted a few events related to Bus, Bike, and Walk Month. A familiar visitor also came up to demand further information on the direction of the conversation on street repair, repeating his opposition to any tax increases to pay for it.

There was a whole heap of resolutions related to the new maurices Tower in Downtown Duluth. (Useless grammatical fact for the day: maurices is not capitalized.) They all passed unanimously, though President Krug abstained due to personal connections, and there was much celebration of the project and all of its ancillary benefits. Two Councilors, despite noting their general leeriness of excessing Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Districts, said this was very good use of TIF Districts.

The highlights of the night were three requests to endorse housing projects seeking state low-income housing credits for downtown developments. Planning Director Keith Hamre explained that they amounted to ten-year tax credits, and Councilor Larson added that this was an application process that did not cost the city, but instead asked the Council to endorse project readiness.

The first plan on the docket was the redevelopment of the existing Gateway Tower, and it was the least controversial of the three. Councilor Julsrud noted that maintaining the Gateway was much cheaper than building things from scratch, while Councilor Filipovich pointed out its “sheer mass size,” with 150 units in the building, including 50 for low-income housing. Councilor Gardner expressed tepid support due to some concerns about the management, while Councilor Folse foresaw nothing but debt. Councilor Hanson claimed he was unable to “do due diligence” on the project based on the information presented, and said the plan was “not firm in foundation.” Carla Schneider, the deputy director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, tried to explain how the ownership consortium would work, but failed to convince Councilor Hanson it was “shovel ready,” and he joined Councilor Fosle in opposition. The plan passed, 7-2.

Next up was a proposal to redevelop the historic Burnham Apartments, better known as the old county jail located behind Government Plaza, into low-income housing. On this project, the Councilors were almost all of one mind: the design required a lot more work before it would earn Council support. Councilor Larson said she hadn’t seen much of anything on it before tonight, while Councilor Gardner voiced concerns about the location. Still, the Councilors had kind words for the developer, a Mr. Grant Carlson, and invited him to work with them to produce a better future plan for his property. Councilor Fosle added that he’d been a “big meanie” who’d voted to have the building torn down some years before, but was pleasantly surprised there was interest in using it now; Councilor Hanson thought enough of Mr. Carlson that he ventured to be the lone vote in favor of the plan, which failed, 8-1.

The final and most controversial project involved the burned-out Pastoret Terrace, better known as the old Kozy Bar. A plan by the same developer (led by former city planner Mike Conlan) failed the previous year; this modified plan had considerably more “workforce housing” than last year’s, which was primarily low-income units. Given the building’s history and place in its neighborhood, there were plenty of strong opinions; as Councilor Gardner noted, the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East has been a “problem since 1918.” Councilor Sipress reminded everyone of the building’s architectural value, while Councilor Fosle again insisted that he would never support anything owned by Eric Ringsred, as Mr. Ringsred had once suggested the City was culpable for his business partner’s suicide. Councilor Julsrud echoed the worries about Mr. Ringsred, saying the past did not predict a happy future; as much as she wanted to be hopeful and see something “literally rise from the ashes” on that site, she said that “we can hope all we want, but we’re the City Council, not a church.”

There were concerns about the project’s role in a broader vision for downtown Duluth as well. CAO Montgomery said the Administration would prefer market-rate housing on the site, and posed a broader question on the concentration of housing downtown. Councilor Hanson picked up on this theme, saying low-income housing was far too heavily concentrated in that area; “is that all we have going for us?” he asked, and wondered about the impact on the police. He also shared a “personal antidote” [sic] about what he saw as inconsistent standards in the city’s evaluation of blighted properties.

The project’s chief defender was Councilor Gardner, who commended the developers for having their “ducks in a row” this time around. She said the Pastoret building was in jeopardy after several harsh winters in its burned-out state, and that its developers ought to be held to the same standards as the others. She noted that the immediate neighborhood was “practically dead,” and bemoaned some of the unsavory activities taking place at the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial across the street. Councilor Filipovich joined her in exhorting the Council to pass the plan, noting it was their big chance to revitalize the corner, and that the LLC in charge of the project had a “proven track record.” Councilor Sipress noted that there was plenty of focus on low-income and more upscale housing in Duluth, but that the working class was largely being left out, and the majority of the Pastoret units, aimed at single individuals making 25 to 30 thousand dollars a year, would help fill that need.

There was an amendment to give this particular a top priority tag; this was mostly forgotten as the Councilors rushed to debate the merits of the project, and in the end it ultimately failed 6-3, with Councilor Larson explaining that it might be “confusing,” and that the state should do its due diligence to vet the projects. The project itself passed by a 6-3 margin, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, and Hanson in opposition.

There was also a pair of items on the agenda that were not immediate City Council business, per se: a resolution supporting the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) moving through the state legislature, and another taking a stand against a proposed Canadian nuclear waste facility near Lake Huron (thus potentially polluting the Great Lakes). Both issues brought out several passionate speakers who all asked the Council to move the initiatives forward. The resolutions prompted the expected grumblings from Councilor Fosle, who said they were out of the Council’s jurisdiction, and would be better advocated by direct personal letter; while he’d play along tonight, he said, he’d never support such a measure again. The WESA was made somewhat more confusing by the fact that it had already been signed into law the day before by Governor Dayton; for her part, Councilor Gardner claimed it did not go far enough in expanding things such as child care and sick leave. Still, it brought out some impassioned defenses by several Councilors, including a personal antidote (sorry) from Councilor Julsrud, who told of her father’s refusal to allow her to work in the family construction business when she was 18. Councilor Sipress told of the process behind the nuclear waste resolution, saying Duluth would be one of many Great Lakes cities and organizations to join the protest, and that it would be passed along to numerous Canadian governmental and regulatory bodies during a required comment period, not “tossed in a wastebasket,” as Councilor Fosle said it would. The WESA resolution passed unanimously, and only President Krug voted against the nuclear waste resolution, labeling it “too broad.”

By the end of the meeting President Krug was trying to hustle things through to end the long night, and even Councilor Gardner was “running out of words.” A grant related to something called “tactical urbanism” was deemed “cool” and passed unanimously, as did a couple of land transfers and a thrilling sprinkler ordinance. Councilor Larson took a brief moment to talk up many things happening at the library, including a functioning elevator (hooray!), a new digital microfilm machine, and a novel seed library idea.

Despite everyone’s exhaustion, there was a lengthy and rather contentious comment period at the end that involved much muttering. Councilor Larson updated everyone on the city’s street repair plan, explaining that it was an $8.50 per month fee that will sunset, and that the unpopular street light fee will also be phased out. This had CAO Montgomery wondering how exactly the Council planned to replace these funds if they seriously wanted to focus on road repair, leading Councilor Gardner to scoff at the notion that the city couldn’t come up with those $2.1 million over three years. In response, CAO Montgomery warned that this was turning into the casino issue all over again.

This also led to a spat between President Krug and Councilor Hanson, who was frustrated by what he believed to be a lack of information and transparency in the whole street planning process. He said the council was “not inclusive,” with people leading certain projects while others were left out, and wanted to know where he could get his questions answered. President Krug, tired of it all, gave a halfhearted lecture before finally pushing everyone to the exits. (It was, frankly, a difficult meeting for Councilor Hanson, who gave the impression that he was in over his head on several issues. To his credit, he is aware of this, and seems to want to do something about it.)

To wrap things up, I apologize for any typos, as I wrote most of this while also watching the Wild game and intermittently yelling things and hyperventilating. Damn you, Patrick Kane.

Blustering Outside, Calm Inside: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/28/14

A vicious wind has howled through Duluth all day on Monday, and the City Council made similarly breezy work of its agenda tonight. There was nothing remotely controversial on the docket, and Member Gardner, busy hobnobbing with Michele Obama, was absent. (Councilor Julsrud had also been in D.C. this week and just made it back in time, and earns a gold star from me for mentioning her visit to Georgetown.) It all made for a rather tame night. Maybe everyone was sick of this God-awful weather, or maybe everyone just wanted to get home in time to watch the Wild in Game Six. (Mission accomplished.)

While the evening lacked in serious policy debate, it did bring out one of the more diverse slates of citizen speakers in recent memory. It was an eclectic group: some familiar faces, some new ones; some very predictable issues, others less so. Three of their number came to discuss potholes and street repair, and they all took the city to task for floating the idea of raising taxes to pay for these projects. Mr. Jim Booth was the most eloquent of the trio, laying out a budget for Duluth seniors on fixed income and worrying how they might survive the steady stream of tax increases. He and his colleagues also complained about the use of TIF districts to finance so many projects, and said the tax burden might drive young families to surrounding communities instead of Duluth.

Two speakers, backed by a group of supporters, came to demand action on homelessness in Duluth. Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission reminded the Councilors of their move toward a homeless bill of rights in January, but said nothing had been done since, as the HRC has only two sitting members and needs people appointed to its open seats to fulfill its function. Mr. Joel Kilgour echoed these sentiments and openly questioned the city’s commitment to its project, citing a Mayor Ness quote from a recent interview and passing out a petition in support of the bill of rights.

One of the more unique speakers was Ms. Ashley Wallace, a social work student at the College of St. Scholastica, who was joined by a row of classmates in the Council Chamber. She used her three minutes to bring further awareness to human trafficking in the Duluth area and Minnesota in general. She broke out a few memorable statistics, saying that roughly half of Minnesota’s prostitutes are trafficked, and that their average starting age is 14. The issue remained under the radar due to the lack of organizations specifically committed to combating human trafficking, though she did cite PAVSA for its work and plugged the FORTE Act making its way through Congress. Beyond that, one other speaker spoke against raising the minimum wage, and a few of the usual suspects were back to repeat familiar talking points.

Everything on the agenda on Monday night passed unanimously, with the exception of the railway land purchase for the Cross-City Trail that was pulled back to the Administration now that Mayor Ness has backed off the original trail route immediately west of Lincoln Park. Councilor Larson took a moment to talk up the work done by partner organizations on Spirit Mountain trails, while Councilor Sipress explained that a budget amendment for pothole repair this spring used previously allocated funds and had nothing to do with the broader debate on possible taxation for a long-term street plan.

In the closing comments, most of the talk revolved around the street repair plans. Councilor Julsrud counseled the people worried about rising taxes to “relax,” saying they were just beginning the public input portion of the streets plan, and that she expects to come to a deal that makes most people happy in time. Councilors Larson and Filipovich sounded similar notes, and Councilor Filipovich told of his fun weekend spend putting out (literal) fires at a Fire Ops 101 event. Councilor Fosle rumbled to life near the end of the comments with a meandering speech on a number of fees and taxes on electricity-related services, complaining of double taxation and asking to know where all the money goes. While it might appear to be “micromanaging,” he said it was important to dig into these details to avoid spending money on “frilly things,” as the city has done in the past, and also complained of “top-heavy employment” in the Ness Administration’s decision to fill and create several high-paying city government positions. President Krug nodded to some of his qualifications and said his voice would be an important one in future debates, bringing a conciliatory end to the evening after the two of them had sparred some at the previous meeting. With that, the Council’s work was done, and everyone went back out into the elements, which were far more likely to inspire vulgar reactions than anything said inside City Hall on Monday night.

Building Trails to West Duluth and Also Iraq: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/14/14

The City Council Chamber was a bustling place on Monday night, with a full house in the audience and a wide variety of issues on the table. A Boy Scout troop led the hall in the Pledge of Allegiance, and many of the usual suspects made their way to the podium before the night was over.

The meeting opened with a pair of public hearings, both of which, surprisingly enough, actually had speakers. Four people all somehow involved in the project spoke in support of the tax increment financing (TIF) district for the former Lincoln Park School, reiterating the importance of city support in subsidizing low-income housing and space for use by local nonprofits. (The resolution supporting this project passed unanimously, with the only discussion being a failed joke by Councilor Hanson about Councilor Filipovich’s golf skills.) The second hearing dealt with the assessments for street repair made in the Morley Heights neighborhood, and the speaker demanded answers on why he’d been charged for something he thought should have already been covered in his taxes, and why he’d been charged when he didn’t live on one of the repaired streets. CAO Montgomery gave him a general history of assessments in the city and explained that halves of blocks beyond a repaired street were also subject to a smaller tax burden so as to spread the costs.

Three of the four general citizen speakers were familiar faces. Ms. Linda Ross Sellner resumed her campaign against the heavy use of road salt, Mr. Loren Martell returned to his anti-Red Plan soapbox, and Ms. Alison Clarke kept up the pressure on the Beacon Pointe Lakewalk extension. The final speaker was a unique one, though, as Mr. Paul Thornton, having just survived his first Duluth winter, bemoaned the lack of indoor recreation facilities for children. He announced the launch of a campaign to bring a play area to Miller Hill Mall as a possible cabin fever reliever. In case anyone needed a reminder of how stir-crazy young children can be, his young daughter helped his case immensely by bouncing up and down around the podium in her tiara and dress, tugging at her father’s arm. Mr. Thornton will seek sponsors for the play area, and his campaign’s Facebook page can be found here.

After the passage of the consent agenda and the usual Councilor Fosle protest vote against a new vehicle purchase, the Council moved on to discussion of establishing a Sister City relationship with Rania, a city in the Kurdistan province of Iraq. Three speakers came forward to plug the arrangement, and many of the Councilors spoke highly of bridging gaps between people and learning of common humanity. (Having hosted several visitors from current sister cities, Councilor Russ cracked that “fifteen year old boys are fifteen year old boys no matter where they’re from. They want to be where the girls are.”) Councilor Russ, who has long been involved with the Sister Cities Commission, emphasized the grassroots push to build ties with Rania and numerous delegations that have gone back and forth over the years; there was also much congratulation of Ms. Michele Naar-Obed for her work in bringing the partnership to fruition. The measure’s unanimous passage was greeted by cheering (lightly chided by President Krug) and Iraqi flag-waving (happily endorsed by President Krug).

The longest debate of the evening involved the plans for the cross-city trail. At the beginning of the evening, CAO Montgomery explained that the portions up for vote at the meeting did not relate to the contentious routing through the Irving Park neighborhood near the NewPage paper mill. He agreed the existing plan was “problematic,” said the city was close to an arrangement with NewPage and the Department of Transportation to avoid routing the trail through the Central Avenue interchange, and that there would be further discussion with the neighbors on the route through the neighborhood itself. Councilor Fosle, a critic of the existing plan, then moved to formally send that resolution back to the administration.

The first discussion involved the purchase of some land from the BNSF railway near Wade Stadium to allow access from the stadium parking lot to the trail. CAO Montgomery shared the backstory on the project, but Councilor Fosle remained unconvinced the sale was necessary when nearby 35th Avenue West would likely serve the necessary purpose. Councilor Sipress asked whether it might make sense to explore a cheaper alternative, and when informed there was no pressing deadline, the Council moved to table the issue, and did so 8-1, with President Krug being the lone dissenter.

After citizen speaker Dick Haney (a familiar face from school board meetings) emphasized the importance of the cross-city trail for a healthy city, the Council took up the acceptance of a grant for Phase II of the trail, the portion between 24th and 37th Avenues West. Once again, Councilor Fosle had objections; he bemoaned the city’s inability to secure the entire old BNSF rail bed for the project, and complained that the new plan instead went down Superior Street and took away parking and land from businesses (including his own employer, the school district’s bus repair facility). He did not find the new route particularly safe, and figured that if it went down city streets, it might as well go through the Grand Avenue business district. He asked if the current design was locked in if the Council accepted the grant, to which CAO Montgomery replied with a ‘no.’ This was enough to satisfy the rest of the Council, with Councilors Sipress and Larson saying they’d be happy to look through some of Councilor Fosle’s concerns in the future. Councilor Fosle then complained about a lack of public input, which brought about strong pushback from CAO Montgomery and several other Councilors; Councilor Fosle apologized for his absolutism, but insisted there was room for better communication, and tried to ask when a plan had to be submitted. President Krug, however, had tired of his questions, and cut him off amid grumbles about the second-guessing of the city’s engineering staff. The resolution passed 8-1.

Two other items on the table got some press via Councilor Julsrud, who explained their benefits to the city. The first accepted a grant to start a biomass project at the city steam plant, which will use sawdust to drastically reduce the plant’s coal dependence. The second gave the city broader authority to use criteria other than price in the awarding of contracts, which will, ideally, allow the city to vet contractors to make sure they actually do their jobs well, instead of just cheaply. (This had been a problem in the Glenwood Street redesign in Lakeside.) Councilor Filipovich also took some time to explain a property sale that will allow the Port Authority to accept a $10 million redevelopment grant for Rices Point. All three passed unanimously.

There were several updates on Council open issues and closing comments. Councilor Gardner said her committee was “very close to consensus” on its City Charter amendment for Council appointments, while Councilor Larson said her trails damage ordinance will be along at the next meeting. She also plugged the “One Book, One Community” library program, while Councilor Fosle grumbled about being cut off, and Councilor Filipovich reminded everyone to get their taxes done. After a hectic two hours, the Council wrapped up its business, and the five people who’d survived the whole meeting packed up their notebooks and Iraqi flags and headed for the exits—exits now mercifully free of snow and Christmas reindeer, though the forecast for Wednesday already has me on my hands and knees. Someday, Duluth, spring will come, and maybe some cross-city trail plans that everyone can agree on will come along with it.