A Bad Night for E-Cigarettes, Bond Debt Resolutions, and Brevity: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/9/13

First off, it’s primary election day…if you’re a Duluth resident and you haven’t voted yet, you have until 8:00. Get out and vote! I’ll have some comments on the results either later tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

A substantial crowd was on hand on a rather disgusting, drizzly Duluth night on Monday, and the Council tried to put its best side forward, with all its gentlemen donning more formal wear than usual (save Councilor Fosle, who wore his regular black polo shirt uniform). Many of the issues introduced or unresolved at the last meeting were back on the agenda, leading to a very long night (and, thus, a very long blog post summary). Councilor Krause opened the meeting by announcing he would not retire until after the next meeting, a change that caused a lot of confusion later on as the Council tried to figure out a timeline to appoint a replacement.

After hearing from a speaker on the proposed Canal Park revitalization who also had some issues with street lights, the Council cleaned up the confusing road salt issue from the previous meeting, with Ms. Linda Ross Sellner again scrutinizing the funding practices and noting environmental damages caused by salt. Councilor Fosle concurred with her worries and hoped that more sand would be used in the future, and with her concern noted, the resolution passed, 9-0, as did the consent agenda.

President Boyle then moved the issue with the largest public interest to the top of the agenda, and no fewer than thirteen speakers came forward to address three ordinances that amended the City Code to regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes. Most of the speakers were in support of the regulations, and the anti-smoking crowd was well-organized and had solid public speakers. Several doctors, healthcare professionals, and members of the American Cancer Society came forward to decry e-cigarettes, expressing their worries about health, secondhand smoke, normalization of smoking around children, and the utility of e-cigs as a smoking cessation device. Three speakers countered them, however; one ranted about bad government regulating things excessively, one asked the Council to put things off until further evidence emerged, and Mr. Brian Annis—a leading advocate who aims to open an e-cig business—returned to cite several studies countering those mentioned by the opposition.

The first of the three amendments would also prove the most contentious, as it sought to eliminate a loophole in the Minnesota Clean Air Act that allows sampling of products in businesses. (The measure would also ban such establishments as hookah bars.) Councilor Krause, in search of a compromise, suggested an amendment with a very strict standard: only businesses with more than 80% of their sales on these products—basically, smoke shops—could allow sampling. This, he argued, would allow people to test the product before purchase, keep businesses in the city, and would not adversely affect children, as they are not allowed in such shops anyway.

However, it quickly became clear Councilor Krause’s amendment would face an uphill battle, as one of his potential supporters, Councilor Fosle, announced his refusal to endorse any attempt to regulate e-cigs at all. He accused the Council of a lack of faith in the state government (which is not as stringent in its restrictions) and made expert use of a red herring by saying the council should be more worried about children trying heroin and ecstasy instead of cigarettes. Councilor Gardner, on the other hand, did break away from the Council’s more liberal voting bloc and announced her support for the Krause amendment. Councilors Krug, Julsrud, and Larson said they would rather hold the line on the Clean Air Act, while President Boyle said he couldn’t support anything that marketed itself in a “cherry bubble gum cotton candy” flavor. The Krause amendment failed, 6-3, with Councilors Krause, Gardner, and Stauber in support of it.

With his amendment gone, Councilor Krause explained why he couldn’t support the ban on sampling. He emphasized property rights, saying private businesses should be able to ban e-cigs as they choose, but nothing more. He also made the point—on which all parties agreed—that existing research was inconclusive on the health effects, and that in the meantime, it made little sense to regulate something that might help people quit. Councilor Gardner agreed, and both pointed out the countless carcinogens and toxic substances we ingest in small quantities every day. Councilor Gardner (a former smoker herself) added that adults are allowed to enjoy silly flavors as well, and that they can make smokers feel less dirty about smoking as they try to quit. Councilors Larson and Julsrud shared a rather different theory of government, and insisted that the Council had an obligation to learn from past manipulations of marketers of tobacco-like products, and that e-cigs should be banned until proven healthy. The Council voted to close the sampling loophole, 6-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Krause in opposition. Mr. Annis left the Chamber in defeat, and a loud noise could be heard from the hallway.

It was at this time that Councilor Gardner took the floor to deliver the most compelling speech I’ve seen since I began attending Council meetings. She conceded defeat, admitting that all of the e-cig restrictions “will pass, and you’ll all be happy,” but took issue with the tactics used by the anti-smoking lobby. The reliance on shame as a bludgeon, she insisted, did more harm than good to everyone involved. She noted that many smokers are poor and low-income people (often without health insurance) who are “humiliated” by anti-smoking campaigns, and claimed these are “polarizing” and “not a good way to change behavior.” She recalled her own adolescent self, and how she’d been attracted to things that were so stigmatized by the supposed do-gooders in the establishment, and wondered what would happen if the anti-smoking groups dropped their expensive shaming campaigns and instead focused their message on cessation devices. “Top-down changing ordinances are not the answer,” she said, saying they were reminiscent of the failed temperance movement. “If we’re a compassionate community, we need to think about this,” she concluded, adding that she felt better now that she’d finished her lecture. Her speech visibly affected several members of the Council and the audience, and one can only hope her words will not be forgotten.

Debate then went forward on the ban on e-cigs in public places, and Councilor Hartman was careful to note that this is not a ban on the product altogether, but merely an effort to regulate them like cigarettes, lest they become a “gateway;” Councilor Krug made similar point about the “slippery slope” of making exceptions to smoking restrictions. Councilor Krause called the measure ineffective, calling it a “band-aid” that could never rectify the “group, family, and cultural dynamics” that push people to take up smoking. Councilor Gardner largely agreed, but figured something was better than nothing, and voted for this measure; it passed, 7-2, with Councilors Krause and Fosle in opposition. The final resolution, a measure that treated the sale of e-cigs like regular cigarettes, passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle being the lonely “no” vote. Councilor Stauber thanked Councilor Gardner for her comments and admitted that this was a “government intrusion,” and while he does not normally support them, he thought that this one was the right thing to do.

After nearly two hours on e-cigarettes, the Council then settled its tax measures for the coming year in the matter of minutes. The right-leaning bloc of Councilors Krause, Fosle, and Stauber raised a few objections, but Councilor Hartman was quick to point out the slight tax decrease, and most of the measures passed along the predictable 6-3 line. (Councilor Fosle also opposed park and bus funding measures that passed 8-1).

Next, the Council revisited the debate over servicing bond debt on street improvement (see last meeting’s notes for details).  Councilor Hartman had fine-tuned the language of the previous measure, this time making it clear that any funds from the casino settlement would be used to replenish the Community Investment Trust (CIT) fund, but the three conservatives once again refused to draw down the CIT any further. This time around Councilor Krause had his own counter-proposal, though his attempt at a compromise on the issue found even less traction than his stance on e-cigarette sampling, as it failed to attract any liberal votes or impress his two conservative colleagues. Sensing an impasse, Councilor Gardner tried to table the measures, but was voted down 5-4; forced to take a side, she continued her tour de force, demanding to know from CAO Montgomery just how much street repair interest on the CIT could fund. The answer was “less than a mile,” and Councilor Gardner rested her case, saying a gamble on the city’s credit rating was not worth less than a mile of road.

Councilor Julsrud was even more direct in her attacks on those defending the CIT, and lashed out at Councilor Krause for “playing politics” with the issue, a reference to things that must have been going on behind closed doors. Councilor Krause defended himself, again complained about the “betrayal” of the Administration that had said it would hold the line, and said he didn’t know how much CIT money the Council might need for streets in the future. Councilor Fosle griped that CAO Montgomery had claimed to be “open to proposals” but had shot them all down, and repeated his line of the night, which accused the city of excessive spending on “fancy, frilly stuff.” Twice during the meeting, Councilor Hartman effectively called his bluff: while Councilor Fosle claims to have a host of money-saving measures in mind to cut out the fancy frills, why haven’t they come before the Council? Still, both measures failed, leaving the debt service issue unresolved.

After the tedious debate over how to go about replacing Councilor Krause (in which Councilor Gardner again had an excellent line by agreeing that Krause’s replacement “shouldn’t be a flaming liberal like myself,” and instead agree with Krause on most issues, and Councilor Stauber did a lot of worrying over subverting the interests of the voters of District Four), Councilor Stauber tried to get the Council to veto an increase in natural gas rates. In a lengthy discourse, he complained that an outside firm had called for a lower rate than the Public Utilities Commission had supported, and that a newfound utilities surplus made the rate increase pointless. Councilor Julsrud commended Councilor Stauber for being “masterful at spinning things,” while Councilor Gardner called him “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” saying the increase amounted to roughly $1.05. Councilor Fosle had his usual complaints, Councilor Hartman had a rejoinder, and Councilor Julsrud said the rate increase would help build a reserve that would help to deal with “ever-changing capital needs.” Councilor Krug said the Council should listen to its commissions unless there is an “egregious” error in their work, while Councilor Krause countered that these taxing authorities often operate in vacuums and didn’t have a good sense of the big picture of city tax rates. The veto attempt failed, 6-3, with Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle in support.

Exhausted, the Council did its best to hurry through most of its remaining business, though Councilor Fosle held up a few issues for comment, and was the lone ‘no’ vote against some legal fees (which Councilor Stauber said had been a “bad decision” but supported anyway). The longest debate was over a reconstruction design for Superior Street; Councilors Fosle and Krause worried about the lack of a funding mechanism, but Councilor Stauber said he was satisfied that the money was there, and Councilor Gardner expressed incredulity that anyone would hold up this project. The measure passed, 7-2. The rest of the agenda passed unanimously, Councilor Larson wished CAO Montgomery a happy birthday, and the Councilors and the four remaining audience members (including myself and two current Council candidates) were relieved to finally exit the chamber, three hours and fifty minutes after the start of the meeting.

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Hooray for Being Boring: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/26/13

It was an oppressively hot and humid Monday night in Duluth, with several of the audience members huddled up against the windows in search of cold air, and an impressive lightning show flickering away over the darkened harbor. But neither heat nor storms could deter the Duluth City Council from tireless debate over servicing street debt, and after draping themselves over the drinking fountain to prepare themselves, President Boyle brought down his gavel and sent the Councilors off on their marathon.

As usual, community speakers led off the meeting, and there were only two signed up, though one brought his “little elves” with him. Mr. Jeff Mass of the Duluth Children’s Museum was joined at the podium by middle-schoolers Garrett and Jenna, who told the Council about their studies of outer space, which will culminate in a ten-minute radio chat with the astronauts in the International Space Station next week. (Exact time and date TBD; their pretty flyer tells us to check the Children’s Museum website for updates.) The only other speaker, Linda Ross Sellner, wanted a clarification on some road salt purchases, which led the Council to pull the resolution from the consent agenda so that an apparent typo in the agenda could be corrected.

After that it was on to the main event of the evening, the discussion of a resolution that would service $2.23 million in street improvement bond debt via money from the Community Investment Trust (CIT). As CAO Montgomery and Councilor Gardner explained, the city had 3 options to service the debt:

1. Take the money from the general reserve fund, which might jeopardize the city’s credit rating;

2. Raise the tax levy, effectively doubling street-assessed taxes in the city;

3. Take the money from the CIT, which would prevent a tax increase and be less of a threat to the credit rating.

CAO Montgomery thus suggested that Option 3, while not ideal, was the best choice on the table; Councilors Gardner, Julsrud, Hartman, Larson, and Krug all voiced their agreement in similar terms. Taking money from the CIT, however, requires a 7-2 supermajority, and with Councilors Fosle and Stauber raising serious doubts, it became clear that Councilor Krause would be the deciding vote.

Councilor Krause admitted to being “torn” on the issue. His reservations, which were repeated by Councilors Fosle and Stauber, revolved around the city’s frequent forays into the CIT despite claims that it wouldn’t take any more money from it. He was “surprised” and “frustrated” that this had come before the Council just a year after being told the city would find a long-term fix. CAO Montgomery countered that the city’s new, pay-as-you-go street funding plan would, eventually, take this issue off the table. Councilor Stauber replied by saying that the city is still has serious unfunded debts (mostly in pensions) and is also spending money on things such as trails; even if they aren’t accruing more street debts, their approach is not totally “pay-as-you-go,” and debt will continue to be an issue.

Councilor Krug said that all of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” out of the Councilors griping about past funding issues was “useless,” while Councilor Larson asked what realistic alternative they might propose. Councilor Fosle, more on-target than last meeting in his critiques, went back to his favorite hobbyhorse and proposed savings in vehicle maintenance; Councilor Stauber said he’d proposed a street bill that had been shunted aside, but CAO Montgomery argued parts of his proposal “would not apply.” He also disagreed with Councilor Stauber’s suggestion that the general fund had been built up by taking money from the CIT; while technically true, the funds had arrived there in a round-about way. Councilor Fosle wrapped up the hour-long discussion by saying he thought the mayor’s office, and not the Council, should be working on the street plan to resolve the issue for good.

In the end, Councilor Krause decided to vote ‘no,’ and the measure failed, with only six votes in favor. President Boyle asked CAO Montgomery what came next, and he responded by saying Administration would likely push to take the money from the general reserve fund at the next board meeting. The city does have a potential white knight in this whole affair, however: at some time in the next month, a federal court will rule on ongoing litigation between the city and the Fon Du Luth Casino, and should the city win, the $12 million settlement will easily cover the debt. While CAO Montgomery made it clear they cannot count on a positive result, the entire council was likely left hoping for a swift ruling from the courts.

Next up was the authorization of bonds to pay for the Lakewalk expansion, and Councilors Fosle, Stauber, and Krause once again held the line on further spending. Councilor Fosle grumbled about wants versus needs, while Councilor Julsrud reminded the Council that over half the project was being paid for in grant money. A simple 6-3 majority passed the ordinance, and a related second ordinance was tabled.

Several resolutions were then read for the first time, and though there was no voting on the issue, there were two speakers on a trio of proposals amending the city code on the matter of electronic cigarettes. Mr. Brian Annis, a longtime smoker who had weaned himself off tobacco by using e-cigs, told of his failed past attempts to quit, and how his conversion had inspired other smokers to switch over to the healthier alternative. He’d clearly done his research, and the Councilors were swift to invite him to an agenda session, as they had not had any defenders of e-cigs at the Committee of the Whole meeting earlier that day. Ms. Jill Doberstein of the American Lung Association countered his claims by saying electronic cigarettes “normalize” smoking, and that their use is often recreational instead of being a means of quitting. She demanded consistency from the Council in its regulation of smoking products.

The Council concluded its formal business by passing two more ordinances without debate: an amendment of city fine fees (opposed only by Councilor Krause), and a zoning change (approved unanimously). In the closing comments, Councilor Larson reminded the city of Food Truck Fridays at the public library, while Councilor Krause asked someone to look into the heavy attire facilities maintenance workers are forced to wear even in the worst summer heat. Councilor Stauber asked if a biennial actuarial study of unfunded liabilities was under way, which it was, and Councilor Hartman took a moment to thank his colleagues for the policy-driven debate about the CIT fund, even though he was unhappy with the result. He admitted it was probably “very boring for the general public,” but he had an excellent point: instead of endless “theatrics,” the Council really had gone to the heart of the issue, and in government, the boring debates often are the most productive. While the nuttiness of a Duluth School Board meeting may be more interesting to those of us trying to endure 90-degree meeting chambers, the Council continues to quietly inspire confidence, and in such a climate, the minority view may even have a better chance to win out—as Councilors Stauber, Krause, and Fosle showed tonight. Whatever one thinks of their vote, that is an encouraging thought.