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…

In Which Councilor Fosle Is Very Happy: Duluth City Council Notes, 3/24/14

It was a fast and rather uneventful night in the Duluth City Council Chamber on Monday. The meeting opened with a public hearing on proposed tax increment financing (TIF) for the planned rehabilitation of the former Lincoln Park Middle School into housing units and community space. Mr. Rick Ball from the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and Mr. Andy Hughes of development partner Sherman Associates gave a brief overview and fielded questions, explaining that the lower-than-market-rate rents in the building did not make it financially feasible without tax help. Several Councilors wanted to be sure the TIF qualification had passed a test run by an outside agency, which it had, though the discussion didn’t go much further than that; the public meeting will remain open at the next meeting.

The Council then received updates on various ongoing issues. CAO Montgomery briefed them on frozen waterlines, which have been unusually common this winter due to the cold temperatures, and hoped for some relief in the coming weeks. Councilor Gardner gave a status update on proposed charter revisions to fill Council vacancies; she said the special election changes would be “sticky,” but said the committee had another meeting on Friday. Councilor Larson said that U.S. Sen. Al Franken would be willing to take up legislation on the logging truck rerouting plan when it came forward. The community speakers were both repeats, though Ms. Alison Clark’s continued push for a lakefront Lakewalk by Beacon Pointe included a pointed question over how much a paved path there would cost.

Councilor Fosle pulled one resolution off the consent agenda, but only to offer his praise for the administration: after six years of endless lobbying, the city has finally brought in a consultant to study its fleet services operations. Councilor Fosle has long contended that the city spends far too much in this department, and was pleased to see the review would be done by an out-of-state consultant with no skin in the game. Councilor Gardner thanked Councilor Fosle for his persistence, and Councilor Hanson expressed his confidence that savings would cover the expenditures for the review. It passed unanimously, as did the rest of the consent agenda. The review, according to CAO Montgomery, should be done by the end of summer.

Naturally, the next resolution up was a purchase of several trucks for the city, and a laughing Councilor Fosle turned around and said “this is exactly what I’m talking about,” noting the low mileage on the three trucks being replaced. CAO Montgomery explained that the trucks were high-wear vehicles and that the new ones were slightly larger, while Councilor Sipress gave a nod to Councilor Fosle’s concerns but said he’d show his support for the administration’s planned review by voting in good faith on these trucks. The resolution passed 8-1.

The Council then appointed Councilor Sipress to the Public Utilities Commission, an exercise that involved a lot of repetition of nice words about Councilor Sipress. He committed himself to the Commission for his full term, which pleased Councilor Julsrud; Councilor Hanson terrorized the Council by asking if they’d use ranked-choice voting if someone else were to enter the race, and Councilor Filipovich, now a battle-scarred veteran of the Commission after his appointment two months ago, welcomed the new junior member aboard after a 9-0 vote in his favor.

Once again a grant application for a portion of the cross-city mountain bike trail was on the agenda, and as usual it inspired some mild dissent, with Councilor Hanson joining Councilor Fosle in the ‘no’ column, saying the city’s $63,000 matching contribution would be better used filling potholes. President Krug noted that these funds had to come out of a portion of the parks budget reserved for capital projects, and the resolution passed 7-2.

Two citizen speakers came forward on the next resolution, which implemented a master plan for the Gary-New Duluth Recreation Area; Mr. Dan Hinnenkamp and Mr. Mark Boben, both longtime activists in the area, shared their excitement for the project. Mr. Boben explained that the project would include new soccer fields, picnic areas, a skating rink, a community garden, a dog park, basketball courts, and a skate park—this last feature being one of the highlights, with professional planners coming in to create the design. (Mr. Hinnenkamp said that he’d driven by the current, mediocre skate park recently and saw a group of boys who had shoveled off three feet of snow so they could use it.) Councilor Larson praised Councilor Fosle for his involvement throughout the planning process, and he in turn praised Mr. Boben’s leadership and commitment. The resolution passed unanimously.

In the closing comments, Councilor Russ announced that a plan to formally establish Ranya, Iraq as a Duluth Sister City would be coming forward at the next meeting. Councilor Larson previewed a “trails damage ordinance” she planned to introduce in April, which will seek to educate citizens on how to protect trails and use them as intended. She also asked about results from the recent housing summit, and was promised a follow-up by CAO Montgomery. Councilor Fosle closed the meeting by plugging a steering committee meeting on ATV trails on March 31 at the Fire Training Center at 6:00 PM, and wished his mother a happy birthday and passing along his love.

It was a quick and painless night in the Council Chamber, and even Councilor Fosle, usually in the minority, was all smiles as he moved through a pair of resolutions he’d long worked for. It’s an encouraging sign: it would be easy for everyone else in the room to marginalize him, but instead they’re taking up some of his ideas, and that makes him happy to work with them. The collegial Council will enjoy two weeks off before returning to solve all of Duluth’s ills, and hopefully all the snow will melt away in that time. Perhaps then someone can take down the reindeer and the Christmas tree still sitting atop the fountain in Government Plaza…

Let’s All Agree on Everything and Finish in Twenty Minutes: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/1/13

It was a windy day in Duluth today, and the Duluth City Council decided to breeze through its meeting in a mere 21 minutes. The Council chamber was on the empty side, though Troop 9 from Glen Avon, looking every bit like the platonic ideal of a group of Boy Scouts, showed up to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Council President Boyle came to chat with them a bit before the meeting started, while Councilor Hartman snuck in a slice of pizza and some grapes. After their colorful wardrobes last week, most of the Councilors were in black.

Councilor Larson opened the official business by touching on some park safety issues, mostly still dating back to last year’s flood; Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery made it clear that another so-called concern, the lack of fencing along a heavily vegetated stretch of railroad track, was not really a concern. Councilor Hartman apologized for not noticing several Councilors’ lit buttons during the Committee of the Whole meeting, and Councilor Krug celebrated the success of the much-anticipated social with the School Board.

After again tabling the Pastoret Terrace housing project, the Council heard from a citizen whose name was not made entirely clear. He spoke on the AFSCME contract that was on the table, and said that while he was fine with the contract (which, mercifully, did not involve much wrangling between the city and the union this year), he hoped the city would look into the “abusive” use of overtime by city workers. Councilor Fosle and Mr. Montgomery assured the speaker that the city is well aware of some past issues involving Public Works employees, and has taken some steps to rein in excessive overtime. Mr. Montgomery noted that some overtime was inevitable, however, what with water main breaks at two in the morning and occasional police action. The union contract passed along with the rest of the consent agenda, 9-0, as did several easements, reclassifications, and a permit for an exhaust fan. The mayor’s administration pulled the plumbing ordinance first introduced last week, likely after the plumbers’ union made its objections clear. That took care of all of the business on the agenda.

In the closing comments, Councilor Krug raised a pair of concerns. First, she complained about the lack of a street plan in the current iteration of the 2014 budget, a worry echoed by Councilor Julsrud. At the very least, she argued, the city needs some sort of “enhanced pothole program” to repair the inevitable damage to Duluth streets after the snowmelt. Her second concern was a weekend letter to the editor in the Duluth News-Tribune criticizing the level of public safety along the Lakewalk. Given Duluth’s reliance on tourism money, she suggested the Council bring Chief of Police Gordon Ramsay before their next Committee of the Whole meeting to learn if crime statistics substantiate the letter’s claim. Councilor Gardner thought this was a good idea, and also suggested a city attorney join the party so as to discuss the implications of the new synthetic drug ordinances, which Mayor Don Ness will sign in the next two weeks. Councilor Fosle opined that the perceptions about crime were related to a series of recent violent crimes in the city; Mr. Montgomery agreed, but said the violent crimes were all among people who knew each other, and thus not of the random sort that might deter people from walking on the Lakewalk. Regardless, it sounded like the Council is up for a serious discussion on crime in Duluth at the next Committee of the Whole meeting, which may be well worth attending.

For tonight, however, the Council was happy to wrap things up in record time. The Boy Scout troop’s leader assured his charges they could come back again if they felt shortchanged. It didn’t sound like they were too sad about missing out on endless council bickering, but, then, there are some of us who are entertained by that sort of thing. I’ll be back with more in another two weeks.