Tag Archives: howie hanson

Duluth Election Dissection 2017

8 Nov

Another year at the polls has come and gone. Now, as is my wont, I’ll play Monday morning (Wednesday evening?) quarterback for the campaigns. Sadly, I no longer have easy GIS access (unless I have any volunteer GIS slaves out there?), so I won’t have pretty maps like I did two years ago, and will spare my readers the Microsoft Paint maps I made four years ago. You’ll just have to make do with some descriptions of the precinct-by-precinct results.

It was a fairly predictable night in city council politics, as is generally the case. The school board, meanwhile, saw a more dramatic change in direction. Voter turnout was low, even for a non-mayoral off year election. Rates ranged from about 40 percent on the east side to less than 20 percent in a handful of downtown and west side precincts, for a city-wide total of 27.9 percent.

Council Stability Continues

In the at-large city council races, the two incumbents, Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ, carried the day. The end results mirrored the primary. Filipovich’s ground game and ability to lock up labor support separated him from the pack, and he ran comfortably ahead of the field. Russ was the candidate among the four least likely to inspire strong emotions; while the other three all had their ardent supporters and vocal critics, everyone seemed more or less fine with Barb Russ, and that was enough to edge her past the two challengers, Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove. The end result was a vote for continuity, and for two incumbents who may not inspire the activist base of the Duluth left, but are certainly acceptable to most of them and know the ins and outs of local politics.

Kennedy had a core committed supporters, and while there were some strong symbolic acts associated with it, as in her trek from one end of the city to the other, that attention was largely limited to a core of high information voters, and I never got the sense that she generated attention beyond that outside of a couple of core neighborhoods. (For example, I received multiple leaflets from every other candidate on my ballot, but never saw a thing from the Kennedy campaign.) Updegrove generated some strong early momentum, but in the end his campaign didn’t seem to move past generic talking points associated with the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, and while that platform will do reasonably well in Duluth, it isn’t at a point where it will win, either. For me, at least, this was a noticeable juxtaposition with the likes of Russ, who was deep in the weeds on housing policy specific to Duluth. Following the lead of her ally Filipovich, she did the necessary retail politics to pull out the election.

In the Second District, Joel Sipress cruised to re-election over political newcomer Ryan Sistad. It’s possible for a 23-year-old to run a successful campaign—see Filipovich’s effort four years ago—but Sistad didn’t have anywhere near that level of polish. While Sipress’s politics may not be all that different from those of an Updegrove, he has a keen knowledge of how to play the political game, focusing on neighborhood issues and emphasizing his service to a district in a way that other staunch members of the left do not. They have something to learn from him, though the caliber of one’s opponents also makes a difference.

Finally, in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett eked out a win over incumbent Howie Hanson. As the most suburban district in the city, the Fourth is fertile ground for the fiscally conservative platform Hanson ran on; frankly, I think anyone else running on Hanson’s issues in this district probably would have won. But Hanson is a recent adopter of many of these issues, and anyone who has watched him in action knew that he (to put it politely) wasn’t always the smoothest ambassador for his positions. Van Nett brings some newfound diversity to the Council (two out of its nine members are now at least part Native American), and with her emphasis on building consensus and cooperation instead of hard policy stands, she’s one of the more blank slates to enter the council in recent years.

The geography of the votes was also fairly predictable. Filipovich won most of the precincts, while Kennedy collected a handful downtown and on the hillsides, plus Irving out west. Upedgrove led on the UMD campus, which is often an outlier, while Russ didn’t win one. Filipovich and Russ, whose vote totals tended to move in concert, did their best on the east and west ends of the city, and also cleaned up in Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where they likely benefited from not having anyone to their right and were likely considered the least bad options by Duluth’s more conservative neighborhoods. Kennedy’s strength of support was in the center of the city, though she also did passably well on the west side. Updegrove, in contrast, was at his best on the east side but ran poorly on the west side, which was probably his undoing.

In the Second District, Sipress cleaned up pretty much everywhere, with Kenwood being the only precinct in which he was (slightly) under 60 percent. Predictably, Howie Hanson did his best work in Duluth Heights and Piedmont in the Fourth District, while Van Nett owned Lincoln Park. She rolled up her margins in those lower-income precincts down the hill, and stayed competitive enough in Piedmont and the Heights to take down Hanson.

In the end, the results here are pretty clear. While this election removed one of the two semi-conservative councilors in Howie Hanson (if one could even call him that), it also rejected a move further left in the at-large races, in effect staying the course. There was perhaps a slight leftward drift given Van Nett’s breakthrough and the failure of the conservatives to get a candidate to the final four in the at-large race, but there are enough asterisks with Hanson that I don’t think the end result signals any sort of sea change in Duluth politics.

The Great School Board Slaughter of 2017

There’s no real way to spin this one: the 2017 school board elections were a decisive mandate for the DFL-backed candidates, the current district administration, and the present direction of the Board.

The slaughter was most extreme in the two district races. In the First District, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the incumbent perhaps most strongly aligned with the district administration, had no trouble dispatching of Kurt Kuehn. But even more eye-opening was Jill Lofald’s demolition of two-term incumbent Art Johnston in the Fourth District. Johnston has withstood intense opposition before, but this time he suffered a 15-point loss. Things were somewhat tighter in the at-large race, but Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham still comfortably outpaced incumbent Harry Welty and newcomer Dana Krivogorsky.

Heading into Election Day, I wasn’t sure if running as a unified ticket with Welty and Johnston, who have their supporters but also their share of baggage, would help or hurt Krivogorsky and Kuehn. In 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard not to see it as a mistake, as Krivogorsky’s careful attention to finance charts seemed to get lost in her association with the other campaigns. Ten years after the Red Plan became reality, beating that same old drum has exhausted Duluth voters. Longtime readers will know I think Johnston and Welty have raised important points over the years, but the rhetoric here has become so repetitive and so personal that I can see how even many who are not thrilled with the nonstop positivity of the DFL candidates would sour on the same old act. Johnston seemed tired, Welty’s blog posts degenerated into a lot more snipping at opponents, and Loren Martell’s columns in the Reader lately might have come out of a Loren Martell Column Generator. Casting protest votes that never achieve anything concrete gets old after a while, and I’ve long maintained that when the focus is more on the candidates themselves than the causes they represent, it’s probably a sign that their time has come and gone. This district needs newer, more constructive critics of the board’s recent direction.

This victory may prove short-lived for the new, completely post-Red Plan school board. Budgetary issues loom large, and unsold buildings still sit vacant. ISD 709 can’t afford many more cuts. The pessimistic case would say that these new, ever-so-positive board members are naively barreling into a future they are ill-equipped to handle. The optimistic case holds that removing the old Red Plan warriors may be a healthy thing: instead of assuming the same old battle lines, perhaps we can now have more open and honest debates on the issues in front of the board. It’s possible to be critical without being abrasive, as Alanna Oswald has shown us, and some clearer air could do everyone some good. Perchance to dream.

The precinct results still reveal some measure of the old east-west divide in Duluth school politics: the combined total for Trnka and Gorham cleared 60 percent in nearly every east side precinct, while the totals were much closer on the west. Still, Welty and Krivogorsky only combined for the majority in three precincts in the city: the two in Duluth Heights and in Irving, which is traditionally the most anti-Red Plan in the city proper. Normanna and North Star Townships, which they also carried, are similarly on the far fringe of that issue. Factoring in Johnston’s defeat, the east-west divide was actually less pronounced in 2017 than it has been in recent years: Lofald’s win was so thorough that Johnston was only within ten percentage points of her in Irving. Meanwhile, in the First District, Loeffler-Kemp swept the deck in the Duluth precincts in the First District, and Kuehn was fairly competitive only in the low-vote townships and Rice Lake.

Street Tax Success

Duluth voters voiced their support for a sales tax dedicated to street repairs by a margin of over three to one. This was the clear message I expected them to send, but by an even more decisive margin than I might have guessed. No one much likes it, but we have to take our pills, and frustration with potholes seems to unite Duluthians regardless of their political leanings. Another tax increase isn’t the easiest thing to swallow, particularly for voters on fixed incomes—I can only hope that the other shoe doesn’t drop when it comes to a future school board levy—but with a clear need and overwhelming popular support, mayor Emily Larson has the vote of endorsement she needs to move this through the state legislature.

Side Notes

I’ll end with a special shoutout to Jono Cowgill, the new District Four representative on the Minneapolis Parks Board. The MURP Class of 2016 is doing big things. Who’s next?

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Duluth Primary Election Results, 2015

15 Sep

The results are in! I offer my decidedly un-expert opinion on all of them below. Here are my previous comments on the field.

In each race, the top two candidates advance to the general election. I list percentages followed by actual vote total.

Mayor

Emily Larson 67.32 (5,456)

Chuck Horton 18.57 (1,505)

Howie Hanson 9.03 (732)

James Mattson 2.18 (177)

John Socha 1.37 (111)

John Howard Evans .63 (51)

Thomas Cooper .56 (45)

Robert Schieve .33 (27)

We’ll start with the most predictable of all the races, where Emily Larson steamrolled a field with a lot of bodies but very little in the way of actual competition. Anyone who might have been a remote threat to her stood aside, and for all the people involved, there has been very little in the way of genuine debate or serious alternative visions for the future of Duluth. Don Ness’s heir apparent should sail on to another victory in November.

Her opponent in the general election is Chuck Horton, whom I considered the most interesting of the bunch. He’s a bit scattershot and perhaps a little paranoid, but he speaks strongly on issues that others don’t, and is a fairly accurate spokesman for a small but significant slice of the Duluth electorate. Howie Hanson, the only other household name here, came in a distant third. Vague and sporadically directed bluster, it turns out, is not a solid campaign strategy. No one else had much of a prayer of making a name for himself.

City Council District 5

Jay Fosle (I) 56.08 (945)

Janet Kennedy 39.82 (671)

Allan Beaulier 2.61 (44)

Derrick Ellis 1.48 (25)

There are six Council seats up for grabs in the election this fall, but only one required a primary, and I’d suspect it’s also the only one with a realistic chance of shaking up the Council’s political composition. With tonight’s results, however, even that may be a long shot. Incumbent Jay Fosle, the often cantankerous west side conservative, put up a very solid primary showing. He has a well-honed feel for that populist vein that Horton nursed into a spot in the mayoral general election, and his district is in the part of the city most receptive to that message. He’s a very genuine representative of west side political sentiment, and is now in line for a third term. Janet Kennedy has the potential to be a strong opponent, but her campaign will need to pick up considerable ground to overcome a 16-point gap. The other two people in this primary put up negligible vote totals, so she can’t just poach their supporters; instead, she’ll have to turn out the vote and probably convince a few Fosle supporters. It will be an uphill battle.

School Board At-Large

Renee Van Nett 44.70 (3,351)

Alanna Oswald 32.51 (2,437)

Jim Unden 22.79 (1,708)

All three candidates for this open seat had respectable showings here, with Renee Van Nett, the candidate endorsed by the establishment, as the current frontrunner. Still, it’s not impossible to see a path to victory for Alanna Oswald, and if she can pick up the Unden votes and turn out more people in November, it could be a very tight race. This election, which I’ve discussed here, could well swing the composition of the school board.

School Board District 2

David Kirby 56.85 (1,044)

Charles Obije 25.90 (461)

Jane Hammerstrom Hoffman 15.45 (275)

Kirby, another establishment-endorsed candidate, doubled up the opposition in this district, and looks fairly safe to win a seat on the Board. This is the district in the city most likely to support public education at any cost, and was always going to be the most difficult of the three races for anyone outside of the Board majority’s consensus to make any headway. Objie now faces long odds here.

Big picture school board notes: I’d break down the six remaining candidates (including the two in District 3, Nora Sandstad and Loren Martell) into three categories. I see one, Martell, as a likely ally for the current minority of Harry Welty and Art Johnston. Two, Van Nett and Kirby, seem to have little interest in talking to Welty or Johnston and are thus likely allies for the current majority. Three—Sandstad, Oswald, and Obije—are trying to stake out the middle ground. If the primary results hold in the general election, the current majority will retain at least four seats, and we can expect more of the same, albeit with maybe a little less margin for error: the majority imposes its will while the minority makes a lot of angry noise. This strikes me as the most likely outcome, and not a terribly desirable one for anyone who wants to see any change in the tenor of the board.

Things get more interesting if either Obije or Oswald—more likely Oswald—can turn around the primary results. An Oswald win would give the minority a path to electoral victory, albeit far from a guaranteed one, and might force the board members into genuine debate and recognition that they can’t simply fall back on their past positions if they want to get anything done. Yes, there’s a risk that this could encourage yet more infighting, but given the track record of the past few years, I’d be willing to take that chance. On to November.

Duluth News Roundup: March 2015

15 Mar

Over the past couple months, this blog has neglected any mention of Duluth affairs unrelated to the exploits of one particular hockey team. Time to fix that. I just spent a weekend back home, and Duluth is basking in sunny repose in mid-March, a rare feat that had everyone out enjoying the brownness of it all. (Why do these nice springs only happen when I’m elsewhere?) So, let’s see what’s been in the headlines over the past couple weeks, shall we?

Surprise! Art Johnston Is Suing ISD 709

Okay, maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and everything has, depressingly, played out according to plan.

I go back and forth on what I think will happen if this does play its way through the courts. Harry Welty, who is the only person providing any insight beyond the most basic talking points, thinks Art has a very strong case in that his freedom of speech has been violated. That said, it’s not hard to see Harry’s biases here, and as the tone of his blog has shown recently, he can’t be trusted to be objective when he has an obvious stake in the outcome. From my very limited perspective, I’m not sure the Johnston camp has a good counterargument to the most salient point against him—that he used his influence as a school board member gave him undue power and a conflict of interest in representing his partner, Ms. Jane Bushey, in discussions with district administration. (Johnston supporters are quick to point out that no police report was ever filed against Johnston’s alleged “assault” of Supt. Gronseth, and I agree that it sounds like a fishy and trumped-up charge, but the “bullying” of Ms. Bushey is just as unsubstantiated at this point.)

I’ll agree with Art and Harry that the state’s law allowing school boards to remove members seems way too loose. I’d support the effort to change that, and bring it in line with the standards used for other elected bodies. But unless his lawyers can prove unconstitutionality, a fight that would involve some very high-level courts, the School Board was within its right to exercise its power of removal so long as it found “proper cause.” The Rice Report as written gave them proper cause, and while Art and Harry have questioned Atty. Rice’s character, they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that. This leaves them with the possibility of questioning some of the testimony she relied on to develop that proper cause. Harry enjoys making dark allusions to the actions of one school administrator, but this would tip the case into a number of accusations in the shadows and he-said, she-saids. Is that really a winning case, especially when the other side actually gets to tell its story? I’m not very convinced. And frankly, if the accused party needs character witnesses, she’ll have some good ones. I could be one of them.

I still think it was dumb of the School Board to go down this road against a mostly powerless Member, as Art will only drag this out in the courts forever and make it an even greater PR nightmare. I don’t know why any sentient voter would support any of the seven incumbents based on their conduct at the moment. But I also don’t think this debacle will prove the vindication that the anti-Red Plan camp seems to hope it will become, either. The whole affair is a pox on everyone’s house.

I should’ve gone into education law. Seems like an awfully lucrative field.

Howie Backs Out

As you might guess, I am crushed, simply crushed, to learn that Howie Hanson has withdrawn from the mayoral race.

It’s actually a pretty shrewd move on Howie’s part, and one that lets him get out of the race with dignity before it gets too heated. His odds were low, and this was not the stage for him. This allows him to dedicate himself to his seat on the City Council. Not having watched much lately I don’t know if he’s getting better or if it’s Same Old Howie, but he means well, cares for his residents, and, as one voice among nine, cannot do too much damage.

This leaves Emily Larson alone in the race at the moment, though we still have eight months before the election. Names like Yvonne Prettner-Solon and Chris Dahlberg continue to drift about, but they’ll need to decide fairly soon if they want to have the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. In the end, Larson may be the biggest winner from Howie’s very early entry into the race, as her quick answer allowed her to really get ahead of the pack and get her name out there. I still think this election is hers to lose.

Let’s Sell Some Weed…Or Not.

There was some controversy this past week over the creation of marijuana dispensaries in Duluth; the Planning Commission is going full speed ahead here. The City Council, on the other hand, hasn’t been such a big fan in the past. There were a number of proposed sites—near the airpark, Garfield Avenue, Lincoln Park, somewhere in or around Morgan Park. Not coincidentally, these are all on the west side. For the sake of the west side’s image, I hope it ends up in the airpark or on Garfield Avenue.

The defenders of these sites say they’re all heavy-industrial areas anyway, which is true to an extent, but complexities of land use tend not to come into people’s minds when house-shopping. Saying “there is a pot dispensary in Lincoln Park” is probably enough. Granted, that might not be a turn-off for some people…but, let’s be real. Any rehabilitation of Duluth’s west side isn’t going to be led by a rush of people chasing a marijuana dispensary (unless Duluth goes all rogue and tries to become the Boulder of the North, but I don’t think that’s on the table right now). It’s going to need stable families to set down roots and repopulate the schools. Stick it by the airport or on Garfield.

Chartering a School

I’ve talked about this some before, too, but it’s coming to fruition: Duluth’s Edison charter schools are building a high school on the Snowflake Nordic Center site.

My objection isn’t to educational alternatives (which I support in principle, from private and parochial schools to homeschooling), nor necessarily to the idea of charter schools (though there is growing evidence that, in time, they tend to just become destinations for white flight). It’s to the scale of the project. In a metropolitan area the size of Duluth, subtracting 600 students from local high schools is going to cause a fundamental disruption. Of course, the school will draw from numerous districts; ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims most Edison students nowadays go to Marshall, and now seems unconcerned, but I have a sneaking suspicion over who will be the real loser in this new setup: you guessed it, the school that draws from the area of Duluth right by the new school. Denfeld. The poor get poorer.

Time will tell, of course. But the supporters of the Edison project are, in my mind, far too blithe and/or naïve over the likely effects of their new high school. This area is too small, and we are all interconnected. You do not live in a vacuum.

St. Louis River Corridor

Lest this post get too down on the west side, here’s cause for some potential excitement: we have some nice plans for the St. Louis River corridor redevelopment, most of them involving trails. In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s pretty much all trails; the question becomes one of how to integrate all of these trails with the existing built environment, and how to capitalize on the new attractions. Still, there’s lots of encouraging stuff here, from skiing to rock climbing to horses to river access. There is plenty of ongoing investment in west side amenities. The question is, will genuine economic opportunity follow? Or is this just a cosmetic repair on the surface, one that ignores a collapsed economic base and a declining housing stock? I don’t have the answer there. Time will tell.

For all my grumbling, it was good to be back. Nothing quite matches a Minnesotan’s delight as the coming of spring after the long, cold tunnel of winter. Enjoy your spring, Duluth. I hope to be back again before long.

Howie Hanson and the End of Boring

24 Sep

Well, we have a race. I didn’t really want to write about it, largely out of protest over the excruciating length of political campaigns launched fourteen months ahead of the election, but a few people have goaded me into it. For the first time in many years, there will be a politician in Duluth opposed to the current administration who aspires to something more than a protest vote.

City Councilor and local blogger Howie Hanson has chosen to go in for the race for mayor of Duluth, mounting a pseudo-challenge to incumbent Don Ness, Duluth’s champion of boring government. Ness, of course, hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again yet, and was put in an awkward position by Hanson’s direct challenge to him. (Sort of. Despite coming out guns blazing, Hanson also gave Ness plenty of credit, and admitted he would be difficult to defeat.) In response, Ness stuck to his guns and kept to his original decision-making timeline, while also saying he was ready for a debate. The entire drama played out on Facebook comment boxes, prompting the expected sniping and grumbling and misunderstanding and so on and so forth. (I know, I know, it’s hypocritical for a blogger to gripe about the rise of social media. Deal with it.)

Cards on the table: I have never been a very large fan of Hanson’s work, a sentiment that goes back to a kerfuffle some five years ago on some of his writings about local hockey. (There was a time when his name was something of a punch line in local hockey circles, though this might have faded some since he abandoned opinion writing about hockey after these incidents.) It’s nothing personal, and I try to maintain a strict division of hockey and state in my thinking. By and large, Hanson’s heart is in the right place. He’s trying to be a voice for citizens in Duluth who aren’t thrilled with aspects of the Ness Regime, and I’m all for principled opposition.

That stance is a total about-face from where he was a year ago—see the end of this post for some critical comments about his predecessor for not being on the same page as Ness—but I think that’s a genuine conversion that he’s gone through in his first year on the Council, and as he’s learned more about local government. He may not be the smoothest operator, but there’s a political vacuum that he’s in a great position to fill, and he’s given himself enough time that he could, theoretically, pull it all together. On paper, a west-sider with deep stakes in the community who relies on fiscal restraint and common sense sounds like a serious contender.

Hanson, however, has done little to suggest he will be able to seize that mantel. Flexibility and common sense are good things to a degree, but with Hanson, the underlying philosophy just seems formless. He is quick to come up with new proposals, which he paints as outside-the-box thinking, but many of them are so poorly vetted that they are difficult to take seriously. Above all, he has just seemed more ill-prepared to govern than any other city councilor in recent memory, with a glaring lack of understanding of how things work in city government. That isn’t all bad—his resistance to bureaucracy-speak is sometimes an asset—but any politician put in charge of an executive department needs to know how to speak this language, otherwise the whole enterprise will fall apart. He has a folksy sort of charm, though he also has some blustering bravado that comes out in spurts, only to be quickly covered up when he realizes he’s rubbed someone the wrong way. It could be a winning combination in the hands of a tactful politician. All of the evidence up to and including this flap over his announcement suggests that Hanson is not one right now.

He has a lot of time, though, so I won’t dismiss him out of hand. We’re going to have a painfully long campaign ahead of us, and if Ness does indeed run, we may have our field set a year in advance. If he doesn’t, Hanson has probably forced the other possible successors to make up their minds soon. (I’ve heard names, but I won’t speculate publicly.) Hanson will be a long shot even if he doesn’t have to face Ness—a near shoo-in for re-election if he runs—but with enough confusion among the people aiming to capture the Ness coalition, he might be able to make things interesting.

Boring government was fun while it lasted. With Hanson in the field, it certainly won’t be that.

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

10 Jun

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.

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

13 May

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.

Meet Your 2014-2015 Duluth City Council

2 Jan

Time to get back to work. With the first Council meeting of the new year a week away, here’s a preview of the nine men and women who will be legislating the city of Duluth for the next two years.

Jennifer Julsrud

1st District; Lakeside, Woodland, Hunters Park, Mt. Royal area

1st term (elected 2011)

-Julsrud, who was narrowly elected in 2011, is fairly liberal, though that comes with some caveats. She also watches the bottom line, demands results, and is not afraid to ask tough questions. This leads her to vote against the majority more often than many of the other left-leaning Councilors, though usually for unique reasons, speaking of her own experience and demanding precision in processes. Is not in the running for Council leadership in 2014, but that makes her a very likely candidate for 2015.

Patrick Boyle

2nd District; Congdon Park, UMD campus, Kenwood

2nd term (elected 2009)

-Boyle served as Council President for the past year, a position he filed ably, though he never faced any serious issues. As such, he didn’t talk nearly as much as his colleagues, and was one of the more reliable liberal votes. His second term may be a very short one, as he is running in the January 14 special election for the St. Louis County Board.

Sharla Gardner

3rd District; Downtown, the various Hillsides, Endion, Park Point

2nd term (elected 2007)

-The queen bee of the Council, Gardner is a tireless community activist who will always explain her decisions (and explain them, and explain them some more, and…). She is a self-described “flaming liberal,” though she is happy to cross the aisle and work with other Councilors when she finds common ground, and will, as usual, explain her thought process. She will also break from the Administration to make occasional principled stands. While generally warm and encouraging, she can be formidable when crossed.

Howie Hanson

4th District; Lincoln Park, Piedmont, Duluth Heights

1st term (elected 2013; seated immediately to fill vacant seat)

-Unlike the other two new members, Hanson already has a couple of meetings under his belt. His instincts appear very pragmatic and consensus-driven so far, though this sometimes leads him to collide with existing processes. It’s hard to know if he’ll continue with this streak, or if he’s just still learning how to do business as a Councilor. It’s far too early to make any sort of judgment on him.

Jay Fosle

5th District; everything west of 39th Ave. W

2nd term (elected 2007)

-Fosle is the Council’s lone conservative, and quite the character. He will actively subvert the city administration when he disagrees with it, and has no qualms about quarreling (on more-or-less respectful terms) with his colleagues. Tends to speak in stream-of-consciousness, which can be head-scratching as he floats seemingly random proposals and questions, but it also leads him to come up with the occasional insight that no one else had considered. From heroin addicts to ATV riders, he also champions causes that the rest of the Council sometimes doesn’t see. Seems to have good days and bad days when it comes to the precision of his critiques. Put his name in the hat for Council Vice President, though given his lack of allies, I doubt he’ll receive it.

Linda Krug

At-large; 1st term (elected 2011)

-Like Julsrud, Krug is a left-leaning Councilor who will ask tough questions and occasionally break from the majority. She is not one to waste words, and is a strong defender of existing processes. She is the sole candidate for the Council presidency, and has also declared her interest in seeking the seat in the Minnesota state legislature being vacated by the retiring Rep. Tom Huntley.

Emily Larson

At-large; 1st term (elected 2011)

-The persistently warm and upbeat Larson is not one to go out on a limb and take daring stands, and instead looks to hear all voices, play the peacemaker, and lighten the mood when necessary. She’s been a tireless worker as the Council’s liaison to parks and libraries. Is reliably liberal, and likely to be elected Council Vice President.

Zack Filipovich

At large; 1st term (elected 2013)

-Filipovich, a recent UMD graduate, is set to become the youngest ever member of the Council. He was endorsed by the DFL, though his campaign was fairly vague and upbeat. What isn’t in dispute so far is his work ethic. An impressive campaign operation led him to big wins on the west side of the city, and he made up a substantial gap in support between the primary and the general election. He has been a regular at Council meetings for months, and sometimes he and I are the only people left in the audience at the end.

Barb Russ

At large; first term (elected 2013)

-Russ was a favorite to win a seat heading into the election season, and had the support of most of the Duluth liberal establishment. It was a bit of a surprise to see her finish behind Filipovich in the general election, but she still won easily over the third-place finisher. A retired lawyer and longtime community activist, Russ appears likely to hit the ground running as a Councilor, though we don’t yet know which particular causes she’ll champion.

Also of note:

David Montgomery

City Chief Administrative Officer

-Gives a weekly update from the city administration, and explains its stance on issues before the Council. Spars with Councilor Fosle with some regularity, but otherwise seems to enjoy a positive relationship with the Councilors.

Gunnar Johnson

City Attorney

-Johnson is on hand at all Council meetings to clarify city charter questions and council procedure issues. Frustrated the Council with his handling of the 4th District vacancy this past year, but the Councilors otherwise tend to respect his interpretations. Is sometimes subjected to leading questions from Councilors looking to reinforce their arguments.

As six Councilors have two years or less of experience, it’s a fairly green Council, and as I’ve discussed at some length before, it features one of the largest left-leaning majorities the city has ever seen. That’s good news for Mayor Don Ness and his administration, though it’s hard to know what the new year will bring, and what fractures might appear as the Council looks to repair Duluth’s streets, attract more living-wage employers, expand the housing stock, and deal with any number of possible surprises. The first meeting of the year will take place on Monday, January 6. As always, I’ll have updates.