Duluth Area Election Preview, 2016

The tragicomedy also known as the 2016 presidential race is about to come to a merciful close (well…maybe, depending how rigged the loser thinks the election is), and I’ve said all I have to say on that mess. To the local races we go. In the Duluth area, there is perhaps a little more intrigue than usual in an even election year: we’ve become used to a competitive race for the region’s U.S. House seat by now, and there are a handful of local races that could shake things up some.

The Eighth District congressional race should be a barnburner. Incumbent Rick Nolan isn’t an Iron Ranger, but he is an old guard candidate who typifies the DFL coalition that has held sway over its politics for so long. He is a liberal Democrat who is generally pro-mining; that’s a bit of a dying breed in the DFL, which is increasingly dominated by conservationist urbanites instead of the rural farmers and laborers acknowledged in its name. It’s a sign of his crossover appeal that both the unions and Lourenco Goncalves—the colorful CEO of Cliffs, the mining company that has come out of this latest ore price crisis looking the strongest, and is plotting a takeover of the stillborn Essar project in Nashwauk—have both come out in his favor. But Nolan’s patient folksiness my not jive with the political climate of the moment, and he’s faced a relentless stream of attacks in a true swing district. Stewart Mills has polished up his operation this time around in more ways than one.

The most relevant factor in the Duluth region for the national and congressional races is turnout in the city of Duluth itself. Duluth is a bigtime DFL town, and much of that DFL leans pretty far left; Bernie Sanders carried the day here in the primaries. Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t need a big Duluth turnout to win Minnesota, and wouldn’t be affected if any disaffected leftists stay home or vote third party. In the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, however, it could make or break the race. In a year when turnout is likely to be down for a presidential year, Rick Nolan needs Duluthians to go to the polls.

At the same time, I’m curious to see Donald Trump’s margins in the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, particularly on the Range. We all know the Range is a traditional DFL bastion, and that probably won’t switch overnight. But the region’s demographics—largely white, relatively few people with bachelor’s degrees, mining-dependent, economically wobbly—are the poster child for an area where the Trump Era Republicans are supposed to make gains. Does that hold true, or do Rangers buck the trend? While I haven’t followed most Range races closely enough to say too much, I was amused to see a local candidate with a bunch of “Make the Range Great Again!” signs on the East Range on a recent road trip. Aaron Brown will be my source of information on that region.

Much like the Range, the west side of Duluth bears watching, too, and not only for how it breaks in national races. The Third District St. Louis County Commissioner’s race appears heated, and could be one of the more exciting local races in recent memory. This is a competition for the seat currently held by Chris Dahlberg, who very nearly became the Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate in 2014. Jay Fosle, a three-term veteran of the city council, squares off against children’s advocate Beth Olson. At the city level Fosle largely serves as a protest vote, at times frustrated but also at times insightful. A Fosle win would solidify the west side’s reputation as having a more conservative streak than East Duluth, at least in a relative, local sense. On the more politically diverse county board, he’d also have a serious chance to enact policy. An Olson win, on the other hand, would show the limits of Fosle’s appeal and move the board somewhat leftward.

A Fosle win would also force the city council to appoint a replacement, which could lead to all sorts of drama.  As we’ve seen in recent years, appointing replacement councilors is not among the strong suits of an otherwise functional, responsive body of government. Replacing Fosle would bring with it an ideological dimension not present the last time we went through this, as a council with seven Democrats and one Howie Hanson would have to find someone to fill the shoes of a man who, while idiosyncratic, has basically become the voice of the right in Duluth-area government.

Sticking with St. Louis County board races, the other two should be easy re-elections for incumbents. In the towns and townships surrounding Duluth, Pete Stauber will beat some guy whose campaign is built around a personal gripe with the board. On the east side of Duluth, Patrick Boyle should cruise; his opponent is Linda Ross Sellner, a familiar face from my days watching city council meetings. The longtime local activist has said she’s basically just running to bring attention to climate change issues.

Democrats will likely coast in most Northland state legislature elections. In several of the Duluth-area races, however, the Republicans have gone with candidates who buck the typical party mold in search of a win, which is worth noting. Dylan Raddant, 20-something transgender person, doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a stereotypical Republican, but is right there on the ballot, and his policy stances are indeed largely in line with the GOP. A near-nonexistent campaign infrastructure, however, will lead to the predictable lopsided loss to incumbent Jennifer Schultz, a UMD economist.

Republican state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, meanwhile, has a much more visible campaign. She too is idiosyncratic, as a part Native American who is running a positive, centrist campaign based around public service, education reform, and cleaning up bureaucratic red tape.  She also sounds the more typical (if rather vague) notes about fiscal conservatism, and I don’t know if she has a realistic chance in a low-information local race where so many people vote the party ticket. Her opponent, Erik Simonson, is a powerful old-school DFL figure, with two terms of experience in the state House and heavy union support. But if any Republican has a chance in a Duluth-wide election, it’s probably someone like Bergstrom.

Fiscal conservatism appears to be the defining issue for the folksy Tim Brandon in the race for house district 3A, which covers bits of Duluth Heights and the communities and townships surrounding the city. If campaign signs mean anything (and it’s hard to say if they do) he’ll probably do better than Republicans usually have in this district, but he takes on 40-year incumbent Mary Murphy, who’s reliably brought home the bacon to the region and who has signs that politely ask voters for their support. A committed listener, Murphy feels like a figure from a different era of politics, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The West Duluth 7B House seat being vacated by Erik Simonson will likely go to DFLer Liz Olson; her opponent, Cody Barringer, offers standard conservatism in his limited campaign presence.

Among those nonpartisan down-ballot races where most voters’ eyes tend to glaze over, there’s only one that has more than one candidate: the race for a Minnesota Supreme Court seat. Here, Natalie Hudson, whose campaign centers around integrity instead of issues, faces off against Michelle MacDonald, who takes more explicitly conservative stands.

Across the bridge in Superior, where different state laws leave local officials with far fewer tools for local economic development than they do in Minnesota, the city is trying to push through an initiative that would raise funds for downtown development. The only other race of any great interest is Wisconsin’s Senate race, where the conscientious liberal Russ Feingold seems likely to reclaim his old seat from Ron Johnson. The Seventh District congressional race is likely safe for Republican Sean Duffy, and there isn’t much else of note on the ballot.

Predictions, because why not: Clinton wins Minnesota and Wisconsin by five or six percent and the election by a margin somewhat smaller than Obama’s in 2012; Nolan ekes out another narrow re-election; DFLers sweep the Duluth area, but there’s at least one Republican surprise somewhere on the Iron Range. For all the talk about everyone’s frustration with American politics, it will be a good night for the status quo. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the country, but I’m less sure the alternatives are any better.

The more interesting questions revolve around what comes next. Does Trump press his “rigged” election case, and what ensues from that, or does he get bored and go home? Do Republicans allow Hillary Clinton to govern? Do the Democrats, who also regain the U.S. Senate and pick up seats in the House, try to push their advantage with a leftward agenda, or does Clinton still have some room to tack to the center, where she’d probably rather be? How does the Republican Party evolve: is there a case for a less crude version of a protectionist, immigration-reducing, religiously conservative platform that comes along and carries it to victory in two or four years, or does it pretend Trump never happened?

Right or wrong, I’ll be along with some analysis after Tuesday.

Duluth’s Divisions, Revisited: 2015 Election Analysis

After a minor delay, here’s a dip into the details of the latest election. As you may notice, my map-making skills have come a long way since I last did this.

Oswald

School Board At-Large race, Alanna Oswald vs. Renee Van Nett (Shown in terms of Oswald’s vote share)

We’ll start with the closest race of the night, the battle between Alanna Oswald and Renee Van Nett for the at-large school board seat. Van Nett’s campaign had a more explicit emphasis on racial equity—even if it was a bit vague on how that was supposed to look in practice—which probably explains her success in the city’s most liberal districts on the east side and in the center of the city. She also may have benefitted from sharing a ticket with the popular David Kirby in District Two in the center-east part of the city. Oswald, meanwhile, focused more directly on east-west equity, which helped her carry the west side. Oswald’s more critical history of the administration and endorsements from the likes of Harry Welty also likely helped her out west, where skepticism of the administration is higher. Still, she was much more than an anti-establishment protest candidate, as evidenced by her success in places like Lakeside and the areas over the hill. She was a nuanced candidate who ran a strong campaign, and gave Duluth a rare upset of a DFL-endorsed candidate in a city-wide race.

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson's margin of victory over Chuck Horton

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson’s margin of victory over Chuck Horton

The main event of the evening doesn’t look all that thrilling; Emily Larson won every precinct in the city in the mayoral race. Still, the margin wasn’t consistent, and reveals the old east-west divide that has punctuated most two-horse races in this city for at least the past decade, if not longer. (Someone with a longer historical memory than a 25-year-old will have to weigh in on the older details.) These results suggest the east side is again driving the agenda, while the west comes along for the ride with varying levels of agreement.

Elissa Hansen's performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Elissa Hansen’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Noah Hobbs' vote share, 2015 city council at large election.

Noah Hobbs’ performance, 2015 city council at large election.

In the city council at-large race, Elissa Hansen won all but four precincts, though her margins again tend to map on to the east-west divide. Like Larson, she is a poster child for continuing the Ness governing vision with her optimism, youth, and emphasis on inclusion. She lost three precincts to Noah Hobbs, and the two tied in the fourth. All four were pretty predictable: Hobbs, a recent UMD grad, carried the precinct on the UMD campus, and did the rest of his damage on the west side. Hobbs is a died-in-the-wool west-sider, so this only makes sense. (It wasn’t an accident that those lawn signs had Denfeld colors.) This is a second straight election that a younger person has eclipsed the establishment favorite on the west side, but I wouldn’t read anything too deep into this. Zack Filipovich simply had a stronger ground game than Barb Russ on the west side, and Hobbs’ ties carried the day on Tuesday.

Jim Booth's performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth, a Duluth Heights resident, did best up in that region. As the relative conservative in this race, I thought he might do somewhat better on the west side, and while his percentages were somewhat higher, he still ran behind Hobbs nearly everywhere. An explicit west side focus outweighs any ideological loyalty. Anyone who seeks to speak specifically for that side of the city will do well.

Sticking with the west side theme, these trends become more acute with if we hone in on the Fifth District race. Here, Jay Fosle beat Janet Kennedy by a fairly comfortable margin. Still, the district has two clear halves: in the Denfeld and Oneota areas, Kennedy kept things very competitive; she was within 21 votes in the four easternmost precincts in the district. However, she got whipped in the far west precincts, particularly in Fond-du-Lac, Gary-New Duluth, and Morgan Park. This is Fosle’s home base, so it’s not stunning, and across the board, these very far west areas were some of the strongest areas for the more conservative candidates in the field. To the extent that the west side now has an anti-establishment reputation, it is rooted in the very far west.

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle's vote share

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle’s vote share

This may be a long-running trend, and the precincts in question are a small enough sample that personal ties for someone like Fosle can make a big difference. Still, this gap endures despite a very intentional effort by the Ness administration to launch a redevelopment effort in this particular corridor over the past two years. That’s significant, and shows that the west side, even if they like the leader of the River Corridor Coalition as a city councilor, still isn’t entirely on board. Once again, the west side wants to talk about west side issues, not the broader liberal ideas one tends to hear from the establishment candidates.

At the risk of conflating a mild political divide and a much deeper discussion, the west side’s demographics hew to a recent attention-grabbing study on the plight of working-class white men. This group feels increasing alienation from the people in power, and whether this involves suicide or more insidious forms such as heavy drinking or drug use—a concern that Fosle, to his great credit, was waving in the face of the Council several years ago—they are dying at a faster rate than before. It’s certainly not hard to see how this affects politics. (See Trump, Donald.) These are somewhat more existential questions on the fate of the American Dream, some of which I’ve explored before, and that theoretical discussion needs to continue. In the meantime, though, cleaning up that steel mill site and other post-industrial dreck, building some new housing on the site of a shuttered school, and bringing some jobs back to the west side will have to do.

In the big picture, however, Fosle’s constituents have themselves a protest vote. Don Ness was not running for office on Tuesday, but he loomed large over the whole race, and his ethos reigns supreme. The city’s government is younger, and solidly on the left side of the political spectrum. Ness’s legacy will last long beyond his eight years in office, and while it will be many years before we can cast final judgment, there’s certainly more cause for optimism now than there was eight years ago. For most Duluthians, the trajectory forward was so obvious that it wasn’t really up for debate in this election cycle.

Still, there is nuance here. Duluth rejected the vogue electoral system because it didn’t get caught up in the latest flashy trend with no actual evidence backing it, and that is a win. A mild upset in the school board at-large race shows some discontent with the direction of the school district, and a refusal to impose a single vision upon it without debate. There is room in the tent for east side liberals and west-side loyalists; for total believers in the Ness vision and a loyal opposition. The more open the process, the greater the odds that a portion of the city won’t get left behind. We’ll see what Emily Larson and friends do with that new mandate.

See two more maps in a follow-up here.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2015

Another election season has come and gone. Your results, with percentages followed by actual vote totals:

Duluth Mayor

Emily Larson 71.9 (15,352)

Chuck Horton 27.5 (5,862)

It’s a long-anticipated coronation, as Larson rolls into office. She’s basically been inevitable since most of the realistic challengers stood down early in the election cycle, and now she finally gets to move toward governance. Her policies will likely be a continuation of those of her predecessor, Don Ness; under Larson, Duluth should continue its re-invention as a creative, energetic city. Still, she’ll certainly have an opportunity to carve out her own legacy outside of Ness’s long shadow, and we’ll see what innovative ideas she brings forward, and how she looks to manage those who aren’t all on board with the Ness agenda. She is Duluth’s first female mayor.

City Council District One

Gary Anderson 61.9 (3,902)

Karl Spring 37.9 (2,389)

No great surprise here, as the far east side elects the more liberal candidate to replace Jennifer Julsrud.

City Council District Two

Joel Sipress (I) 97.5 (2,891)

After an unopposed run, Sipress returns to a council where he is suddenly among the more senior members. First appointed in 2014 after Patrick Boyle was elected to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, he now gets a full four-year term.

City Council District Three

Em Westerlund 82.4 (2,278)

Barri Love (withdrew from race) 16.8 (465)

Love’s withdrawal left Westerlund with no competition in this race to replace Sharla Gardner in the center of the city.

City Council District Five

Jay Fosle (I) 56.4 (2,215)

Janet Kennedy 43.4 (1,705)

The far west side of the city retains its contrarian streak and returns Fosle, a frequent skeptic of the Ness governing consensus, for a third term. Kennedy made up some ground on her primary gap, but ultimately failed to break through. Fosle is usually left playing the grumbling protest vote, though I definitely give him credit for occasional independent streak that produces some insights and occasionally highlights some perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise get a seat at the table. He is now the most senior member of the council.

City Council At-Large (Two open seats)

Elissa Hansen 37.8 (12,192)

Noah Hobbs 28.8 (9,271)

Jim Booth 21.5 (6,922)

Kris Osbakken 11.5 (3,699)

This script looks just like the one two years ago, as the two DFL candidates move through, leaving a conservative in third and a local Green Party figure in fourth. Hansen, a dynamic candidate with a background in economic development, was a shoo-in from the start. Hobbs, a younger guy with a lot of passion for the west side, should provide an interesting voice in coming debates over the future of that side of the city. The other two were always long shots.

City Council Big Picture: The Council’s ideological composition didn’t shift at all, as the lone conservative incumbent retained his seat and moderate liberals cleaned up everywhere else. There is on notable shift, though: there’s a youth movement afoot. Three of the nine councilors are now under thirty, and a fourth is in her thirties. In Don Ness’s wake there has been a generational shift in this city, and there’s a lot of young energy making its move into city politics. Do my generation proud, kids.

School Board District Two

David Kirby 59.7 (2,776)

Charles Obije 40.0 (1,857)

Kirby’s big lead from the primary carried through to the general election, and it’s little surprise to see him cruise through in a wealthy district that values its public education. He succeeds the polarizing Judy Seliga-Punyko, and he now gets to negotiate the school board minefield: is his positive talk a genuine desire to move forward from all this past junk, or will he follow his predecessor in staking out the battle lines? I thought Obije appeared a strong candidate, and hope he remains involved in some capacity.

School Board District Three

Nora Sandstad 64.2 (3,111)

Loren Martell 35.2 (1,705)

This makes three elections and three decisive losses for Martell; I thought he had a chance this time around, given his exposure through Reader columns and a more forgiving district. Instead, Sandstad carried the day. Like Kirby, she’s largely kept mum on big issues and said all the right things about staying positive and moving past recent ugliness; the big question now is how her apparent independence will play out in practice.

School Board At-Large

Alanna Oswald 51.5 (9,621)

Renee Van Nett 47.6 (8,910)

The tightest race of the evening also involved its biggest shift from the primary, as Oswald came back from an early deficit to ease past Van Nett. She was probably the most dynamic campaigner of the bunch, and if she can bring this energy to the board, it will be a very different place. If she can retain her independence, she’ll be a force. I also hope Van Nett continues her advocacy in key areas even though she’s not on the board.

School Board Big Picture: It’s a potential changing of the guard in ISD 709, as three consistent votes in the monolithically pro-administration bloc retire and three fairly new faces in Duluth school debates make their way in. Unlike some of the current and outgoing members, they don’t have long records siding with one side of the dead horse Red Plan debates. With two solid pro-administration votes and two staunch critics among the remaining members, these three now have the power to play kingmaker. Whatever they decide, one hopes they will stay above past squabbles, ask tough questions, and dig into the district’s most pressing debates. Color me cautiously optimistic that some new blood will leave the old debates behind and provide a much-needed jolt of energy for the real issues at stake.

Ranked Choice Voting Ballot Question

No 74.7 (15,564)

Yes 25.3 (5,271)

Mission accomplished.

My own opinions aside, this was quite the decisive vote. It shows how a campaign with considerable outside financial backing can fall to a largely grassroots local campaign (though Walter Mondale did weigh in on the ‘no’ side in the final week). It’s also distinctly Duluth, as the city chose not to follow in lockstep with the trend in the Twin Cities. Duluth elections will be a bit simpler for it, and perhaps we’ve finally heard the last of this well-intentioned but poorly supported and ultimately misguided attempt to “improve” democracy. Back to the real issues.

Non-Binding Lakeside Liquor Ban Repeal

Yes 59.3 (11,528)

No 40.7 (7,912)

This was, weirdly, a city-wide question, and the rest of the city had stronger opinions than the Lakeside residents did. Even so, opinion in Lakeside has shifted some since the 2008 referendum on this topic; at that point, it fell one vote short, while the DNT is now reporting the repeal got about 53 percent of the vote. Before I die, I will be able to buy a damn beer in my childhood neighborhood. (No, the 3.2 Coors at Super One does not count.)

Method of Setting City Council Pay Ballot Question

Yes 67.0 (14,031)

No 33.0 (6,917)

This procedural move lets the Charter Commission set council pay, which seems a bit wiser than letting them just vote on it themselves. Any new pay grade will still require Council approval. We’ll see if anything actually comes of this and revisit it if and when that debate starts up.

Time-permitting, I’ll be back with some comments on precinct-by-precinct results in the near future. Stay tuned.

Duluth Primary Election Results, 2015

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.

Farewell Duluth II: On Culture

Culture is a notoriously murky term, one that can be used to explain just about anything without actually proving causes or relationships or anything of the sort. Trying to define a culture is a frustrating exercise that throws a lot of unlike things into the hopper that then spits out a vague, abstract Thing that we claim has some substance. An awful lot of bad social analysis has used it to glorify or defame a group of people, and “cultural studies,” while potentially valuable, can also become repositories of mediocre thought and self-absorption.  At its most fundamental level, culture is a shared identity, which just goes to show how hard it is to pin down; no one person’s identity can be summed up by a few simple words, and it’s only going to get worse as we add more people. There is also a good chance that, even at a time where people are more and more likely to surround themselves with others who share their views, half the people on one’s block wouldn’t qualify as sharing one’s culture. There are a million different ways to measure it, and it’s tough to argue that one has any more intrinsic value than another.

Just because it is hard to capture something, however, does not mean that it is not real, or that it does not have considerable power. Duluth, Minnesota has a very distinct culture, one that makes it undeniably unique, and just about everyone from the city who ventures out and thinks about this knows it.

We can try to list some stuff that makes up the culture. There’s a hardiness and stoicism in the face of long winters, with a strong Scandinavian ethos to it. There’s a blue-collar legacy of a transportation hub near the Iron Range in there, and there’s also a strong element of Congdon Old Money and its resultant noblesse oblige. There’s an outdoorsy ethic, from biking and boating in summer to skiing and pond hockey in winter. There is relative racial homogeneity, the ruling DFL coalition, and an obsession with talking about the weather. There are neighborhoods and schools and businesses, all generators of their own sub-cultures; some predictable, some less so.

Culture, however, is never static, and Duluth has undergone a considerable shift over the past decade. It didn’t begin with mayor Don Ness—before him, there was Canal Park and the Munger Trail and a number of other efforts (of varying success) to get Duluth past its 1980s post-industrial mire. But Ness’s cool Duluth energy is part and parcel with the surge of renewal in recent years. In his own words, it plays to “authentic strengths” of this city, instead of trying to pretend we’re something we’re not. And so we have booms in biking and beer and indie music, plus the rise of urban farming and the industrial chic architecture used to revive derelict lots and crumbling old buildings. All the artsy quality of life stuff is moving in tandem with legitimate economic expansion, from the aviation sector to engineering to some good, old-fashioned manufacturing. Duluth has character, and a genuine sense of direction, too.

Another of Duluth’s strengths is its civic engagement, which has fueled the recent renewal. People love this city and want it to succeed, and will spend endless hours prepping for public meetings on school and park plans and so on. At the same time, though, some of its greatest outbursts are in opposition to new planning, and that’s definitely not always a bad thing. It is an erratic and often untamed force, as evidenced by the overzealous attempt underway to recall city councilor Sharla Gardner. Still, it’s a force that slows some of the more harebrained schemes and preserves some of the better aspects of local culture. At its best it’s simply a direct application of common sense, a counterbalance to the plans from on high that manages a strong voice without going into excess. It’s exemplar at the moment is Jay Fosle, the west side city councilor whose populist conservatism stands in sharp but (usually) respectful contrast to the left-leaning visionaries. As I wrote in my account of the first Council meeting I attended, he can waver between wise insights and serious head-scratchers with little warning. But Fosle is not there simply to say no; he is willing to work with people, and no one does a better job of effectively organizing citizens and bringing them forward to speak to the Council. The authenticity of the voices on both sides of Duluth’s political debates keeps things from falling into the stale platitudes of national politics, and that complexity is another source of life.

Still, as I’ve said many times—here in culture, here in politics, here in education—there’s an elephant in the room that threatens the whole project. This is, of course, the east-west divide. It’s always been there, of course. But the most obvious thrust of the current renewal, with its cultural enrichment and “creative class” cultivation, does not produce evenly spread results. If things just plug along as they are, it’s not hard to predict a split in which east side (and Hermantown) reap the benefits of a vibrant city, while the west side sinks into stagnation, a place without a future. Families with children are an excellent bellwether, and nothing is more haunting than this map of the city’s last school board levy. It’s also what makes Don Ness’s seeds of a vision for the west side so worth watching: if Duluth is going to transcend the common narratives of renewal by gentrification, this is where it will have to take place. It won’t be easy.

The plight of the debate around Duluth’s public schools is a sign of what can go wrong when the enlightened planners impose their vision while dodging public debate. Many of the critiques of that plan and its opaqueness had merit, even though I have little patience left with many of its foremost critics. Duluth’s echo chamber of education debate is a bizarre and unpleasant place, filled with catfights and resentment and overblown egos. Funnily enough, through it all, Duluth remains a pretty good place to raise some kids. It has enough big city stuff to be interesting and keep them engaged, has just enough variety to show them all walks of life, yet is small enough that they still get that much-hyped small-town feel. Every week, someone in the media laments the fact that kids don’t get to play freely anymore, but that’s not what I see when I look out my window. Children roaming and playing are one of the most obvious signs of communal health, and it was heartening to hear a recent visitor to the economic development agency where I intern gushing about all of the families she saw out and about on Duluth’s streets. A little part of me died when the Congdon hockey rinks got cleared out to make room for a parking lot.

This discussion of education and childrearing brings me back to the thrust of this post: the primacy of culture, from which everything else follows. Set things in motion early on, build a supportive environment, and your odds are as good as any, even if your background isn’t one of great wealth or education. Duluth does that well for most people, but as with anywhere, there are exceptions, and when they’re relatively few in number, the contrast can be glaring. There is still a substantial amount of poverty in Duluth, and while I’ll leave aside most of that debate about subcultures and pathologies and other things that bog people down, poverty and its associated ills often leave people incapable of participating fully in the broader culture and reaping its benefits.

To be sure, part of this problem comes from the culture itself. Aspects of culture can be both good and bad when it comes to business climate, and despite Duluth’s attentiveness to many of its ills, good intentions do not always beget good results; sometimes it can make things worse. Minority populations here (racial and otherwise) are so small that it’s hard for them to generate their own vibrant, self-sustaining cultures; they can either assimilate into the general culture, or be alone. It’s hard to know what can be done about this; if we did know, we’d have solved a lot of problems long ago. (Perhaps the most important point here is that these are not problems to be solved, but the stories of lives of real people to be unspooled into the fabric of a community.) Duluth has no shortage of well-intentioned people who want to overcome these troubles, and with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie group and a vocal group of activists, there are real dialogues, though it’s not hard to ignore them, either. In time, demography will probably make these questions more relevant. One would hope that Duluth’s general tolerance will make this smoother than in other places, but it’s easy to claim tolerance when it’s rarely put to the test. Culture will always divide us, for good and ill.

In the eyes of some, the divisions coming out of culture are reasons for its dismissal. Better to cast away these things that tie us to imperfect places and people. An afterlife or some ideal form of human life takes precedent. Doing this, however, chokes off many of the greatest sources of earthly happiness. There are things I could do without in Duluth’s culture, but, in looking around the world, there is so much here that is worth preserving and enhancing. It has a strong sense of self, and now it also has a trajectory to match. It’s fighting the standard narratives of decline and measurements of success in cities, and these days, more often than not, it’s winning.

That makes Duluth unique, and explains why some people who aren’t native Duluthians find it hard to ever quite settle in here. But it works for Duluth, and it is, of course, never static. It goes along, guided by both inertia and a lot of hands that have claimed it as their own. It is a city with a soul, a sheer sense of being; a sense of motion through time, cyclical, coming and going, life and death flowing in and among one another. It has a rhythm, a pace, perhaps unique to each who walks its streets, yet felt like a beating heart, grounding one within it, leaving no doubt: a sense of place. It’s home.

Part 3 is here.

Meet Your 2014-2015 Duluth City Council

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.

From Office Towers to the Horrors of Heroin: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/28/13

The Council Chamber teemed with life for its final session before the 2013 elections, with a large, chattering crowd on hand. Councilor Hartman was absent and “sick in bed,” according to President Boyle, leaving the Council with only seven members. Even so, they managed to pack a broad range of issues into a relatively short meeting.

The highlight of the night actually took place before the formal meeting, as Councilor Fosle made good on his promise to hold a Committee of the Whole meeting on heroin use in the Duluth area. Police Chief Gordon Ramsay was on hand to testify, and fielded questions on the spread of heroin, explaining the PD’s efforts to cut off supply lines from Chicago and Detroit and the troubles the city has with for-profit methadone clinics. Once the formal meeting started, six citizen speakers addressed the Council on heroin. They led off with a woman who gave a thorough overview of the drug in Duluth, telling of how addiction begins with people taking pain-killing drugs such as Oxycontin that are over-prescribed and often serve as a gateway. She attributed over 20 Duluth-area deaths over the past two years to heroin overdoses, and labeled it an “epidemic” that requires more education.

She was followed by two mothers of heroin addicts who shared jarring stories of their sons’ struggles. One said of her son that “she didn’t know who he is anymore,” detailing his addiction to painkillers starting at age 16 that led him to heroin and jail stints, theft, and no sober friends. She likened the experience to “watching my child drown, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.” The second explained the agony of being the mother of an addict, a life filled with nights of “tears and silent screams” given the lack of support networks, and the pain of having one’s child labeled as “scum.” The fourth speaker was a recovering addict who has been clean for three and a half years after roughly 15 years on heroin; she talked of how difficult it was to overcome the drug, and did her best to offer hope to the mothers who had come before her. A 22-year-old took the stand as the witness for her generation, which has been the worst-hit by heroin; she told of several family members and friends who have died in recent years. The final speaker emphasized the importance of prevention and treatment; while it is good to cut off drug suppliers such as Jim Carlson, he pointed out that removing the supplier does little to stem the demand.

After the meeting, Councilor Fosle thanked the speakers for their time, and invited the other Councilors to reflect on the stories and come back to him with their thoughts on what, if anything, the Council could do to fight the heroin epidemic. For a second straight meeting, he came across not as the rambling ideologue he occasionally seemed to be in the past, but as a powerful advocate for issues that might otherwise be missed. Councilor Krug suggested the Council hear more testimony from people working with addicts in schools, emergency rooms, and rehab centers to better grasp the issue. Councilor Gardner agreed, and said the root of the problem—prescription opiates—appeared clear. She hoped for further engagement with the medical community in the future.

The most involved piece of official Council business was an update on the construction of an office tower on the 400 block of West Superior Street by Mr. Chris Eng of the city’s Business Development office. He explained that the building, which stood 15 stories high in the initial plans, was now down to 10-12 stories. He detailed the funding sources for the project; $50 million of the $70 million project will be contributed by clothing designer Maurices, which will occupy much of the building, while the city will match an $8.5 million grant to cover most of the remainder. Councilor Fosle asked whether Maurices had a tenant lined up for its current location; a Maurices representative told him they had one for their main building, and were confident they could sell their other two locations over the next two years. Councilor Stauber grilled the project’s representatives on the finer details of the changes to their funding plans and received an assurance that the tower had letters of intent from several likely tenants for its retails spaces, though the tenants could not be disclosed at this point. Councilor Julsrud asked about the parking ramp, which has also shrunk in size now that the tower will not be as tall as first planned, and will not require bond money due to Maurices’ decision to front the payment.

The Council’s consent agenda passed unanimously. A measure that would have asked the state legislature to make it possible to remove withdrawn candidates from ballots was tabled, and the administration withdrew a plan to remodel a fire hall for further work. Councilor Stauber was the lone vote against the planned distribution of tourism tax revenue, though he didn’t explain why. Councilor Gardner introduced a City Code amendment to rename the American Indian Commission the “Indigenous Commission,” saying the new name was more inclusive. Councilor Fosle clarified that the term “indigenous” included numerous Asian and Pacific island groups, and the name change passed unanimously.

Next up was an ordinance funding a parking ramp at the Duluth International Airport. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle took care to emphasize the importance of the project, noting its minimal risk and its role in completing an important expansion for the airport, while President Boyle shared his personal horror stories of flying back into Duluth after a vacation to find his car plowed in and buried under half a foot of snow. The measure passed unanimously, as did two minor changes to permitted building types and sites. That wrapped up official Council business for the meeting.

In addition to her comments on heroin, Councilor Gardner used the final comment session to discuss recent controversy over efforts to remove homeless people sleeping in the “Graffiti Graveyard” beneath I-35 in downtown Duluth. She said she and President Boyle had recently attended a forum on poverty and learned that many people experiencing homelessness feel “less than legal” and fear doing things like coming before the Council to speak about their plight. She said she was looking at models used in Seattle and Providence, Rhode Island that might help empower these people to seek more help. Her comments wrapped up a brief but heavy meeting in which the Council did a thorough job of shining light on people who might otherwise slip through the cracks, yet still found time to push a pair of key economic development projects. Yet again, the Council proved an effective governing body, confronting issues that face a wide swath of Duluthians. We’ll see how well it can turn its talk into action, and how it evolves after next week’s election.

A New Counterweight: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/14/13

First off, I’ve gotten some very good responses from a number of people on my last post on charter schools. There will be a follow-up in the not-so-distant future. I appreciate the comments and welcome them from any perspective: please, make use of the comment boxes, or if you know me personally, get in touch through email or Facebook. I love the dialogue and I’m willing to answer to just about any sort of critique or question.

The Duluth City Council was in a rather festive mood as it kicked off its first meeting in three weeks. There was a warm energy in the council chamber at the start, and for good reason: as several Councilors noted, the city has won two major victories in recent weeks, with perpetual headache Jim Carlson convicted on 51 of 55 counts for his sales of synthetic drugs in federal court, and the city winning a substantial sum in a settlement with the Fon Du Luth Casino; while neither case is totally settled, things look good on both fronts for now.

The goodwill dissipated fairly quickly when Councilor Krug, who was absent at last week’s meeting, took the other Councilors to task for their inability to fill former Councilor Garry Krause’s vacant seat. (Details here, in last meeting’s write-up.) She wondered why, after Mr. Eckenberg announced his disinterest in filling the seat for only two meetings, they did not then appoint the other applicant to the seat, Mr. Radzak, whom they had all deemed qualified. She also opined that Atty. Johnson had erred; while he did correctly interpret the city charter, she said state statutes should have clarified the situation. Councilor Gardner agreed with her, and the two agreed to work to correct any future issues. Councilor Larson, with assist from Councilor Fosle and CAO Montgomery, updated the city on the efforts to re-route logging trucks off of Superior Street.

Councilor Krause’s seat came up again during the public comment session, as two citizens lashed out about the lack of representation for District Four. Former police lieutenant Peggy Johnson plugged the launch of the Duluth Police Foundation this Thursday at 5:00 at Clyde Iron. Mr. Rich Jaworski of the Duluth Children’s Museum and eight kids, most of middle school age, came forward to share the story of their radio conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station; the Councilors all melted into their sweetest smiles as the kids talked, and Councilor Julsrud snapped some pictures.

There were also two citizens who seemed rather confused over which political body they were speaking to. One man ranted about the luxurious expenses accrued by President Obama and IRS employees while the national debt grows, while our old friend Mr. Loren Martell shared some “facts” about the school board levies on this fall’s ballot. This is the City Council, not Congress or the School Board, people. But, hey, I guess they got themselves on TV.

After that, it was back to business. The consent agenda sailed through, 8-0, and a few resolutions were pulled back to administration. A resolution to appoint Mr.  James Williams as Director of Public Administration did draw some dissent from Councilor Fosle; while he was quick to say that he had no issues with Mr. Williams himself, he said the position was not necessary. He claimed it had been created a few years prior to give a former CAO a job, had an exorbitant salary, and just created more “top-heavy” bureaucracy. Councilor Gardner said she had been a bit skeptical as well, but had been reassured of the position’s value. Councilor Krug grumbled that the city should have made a stronger effort to retain the former occupant of the position, an African-American woman, and also complained of the lack of women in the Administration; CAO Montgomery countered both charges. The resolution passed with Councilor Fosle as the lone “no” vote.

Next up was a resolution authorizing the dumping of snow at a spot owned by the Economic Development Authority by the harbor, as has been done in recent years. Councilor Stauber announced his opposition, as he thought dumping snow filled with road salt next to a waterway was a bad idea; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the snowmelt at least filtered through the ground when dumped there, whereas it would go straight into the water as runoff if simply left where it was. Councilor Fosle also asked for updates on the search for a new spot to dump snow, and wondered why it all had to be put in one place. The resolution passed, 5-3, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, and Stauber all opposed.

After Councilor Stauber shared a nice story about the Police Department’s bomb-sniffing dog, which had some grant money approved unanimously, the Council had another debate about the cross-city Duluth Traverse bike trail. Mr. Adam Sundberg of the biking group COGGS spoke in support of the measure, which accepted $2.4 million in grant money for the project. Councilors Larson and Julsrud affirmed their support and said this grant money offered a unique opportunity, while Councilor Stauber pressed CAO Montgomery on the $575,000 the city might have to pay in order to supplement grant money. CAO Montgomery explained that the city might not need to pay all of that money, and said it could be bonded or pulled from parks capital funds. Councilor Fosle echoed Councilor Stauber’s worries, saying “this whole trail thing is getting out of hand,” and wondered about future maintenance costs. He said the city already had bike trails, that the cross-city trail was not a practical commuting route, and wondered why bicycle trails were supported while things his constituents had told him they wanted, like ATV and snowmobile trails, were neglected. Rising to the occasion, he explained that he was simply trying to be the voice of people whom the other Councilors might not be hearing from. Councilor Hartman again tried to insist this was not a “trails versus streets” issue, while Councilors Krug and Gardner said the trail debate shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game between bikes and motorized recreation vehicles. The resolution passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.

Everything else on the agenda was either tabled or passed unanimously. In the closing comments, Councilor Julsrud brought forward a representative from the airport who will be lobbying for a new parking ramp in the coming meetings, and Councilor Stauber gave an update on school speed zones along city streets. A number of the Councilors said they were willing to work with Councilor Fosle on some sort of effort to satisfy snowmobilers and ATV riders.

This was an interesting meeting to watch, as the Council now lacks Garry Krause, who had been among its more active members. I’ve often described the Council as having a liberal-conservative split, but to the Council’s credit, the debates here often go beyond a simple left-versus-right war. While Councilor Krause was a well-spoken leader for the fiscally conservative minority who also was willing to compromise, I often sang his praises because he brought a different sort of opinion forward. I especially liked his characterization of himself as the defender of the “mundane and boring,” and his ability to raise some unique questions about the Administration’s new projects and march of “progress” helped make sure that the Council never fell victim to groupthink or narrow ideological divides.

With Krause now out of the picture, I wondered if anyone would fill that void; Councilor Gardner often does a good job of this from the liberal side, but I wondered if the more conservative members would be able to find their own counterweight. Councilor Stauber has a fairly similar temperament but is more soft-spoken and will retire in January, and I’ve had my doubts over Councilor Fosle. Councilor Fosle has never seemed very keen on compromise, and as I’ve noted numerous times, his criticisms can seem to come out of left field. More than once, I’ve had the impression that his sparring partners think he is just blathering so as to distract people from the issue at hand.

This time, however, there were real signs of maturation, and Councilor Fosle may yet emerge as a conscientious critic. Yes, his speeches still wander occasionally, and yes, some things he says come off as hyperbole. A few weeks ago, I called Councilor Fosle’s claim that the city should be worrying about heroin and ecstasy instead of e-cigarettes a “red herring.” After this past meeting, I’ll give him real credit: this wasn’t just some attempt to distract the debate. The last few minutes of the comments section were spent making plans to discuss the issues these drugs create in Duluth. Councilor Fosle is arranging for a number of community speakers at the next Council meeting, and described rises in the consumption of both drugs, often paid for by desperate people with food stamp EBT cards. He also suggested the Council educate itself on krokodil, a new drug which, if you haven’t heard of it, is absolutely frightening: as Councilor Fosle described in vivid terms, it is a cheap version of heroin that causes flesh to fall off, is often fatal, and is now on the rise. Councilor Fosle may frustrate at times, but he has a knack for picking up on things that other people don’t necessarily see, and talking to people who may not otherwise get a spot at the table. His concerns are genuine, and I’m curious to see how he evolves in future meetings. After a messy meeting last time around, the Council was back to looking like an effective, consensus-building body that also includes some diversity of opinion, and a quick glance at the other political bodies out there “operating” right now is a good reminder that we shouldn’t take this sort of thing for granted.

Councilor Fosle Takes a Stand: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/12/13

After a month-long recess, the Duluth City Council re-convened on Monday night in front of an unusually small crowd in the council chamber. There wasn’t a single citizen speaker, and the agenda was on the light side, but the Council still found plenty to wrangle about.

The meeting opened with city Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery giving the council two updates. The first regarded repairs planned for the perennially out-of-service Minnesota Slip Bridge, a pedestrian walkway that has become such a financial drain that Mayor Ness recently proposed getting rid of the thing altogether as part of a larger redevelopment of the waterfront area. CAO Montgomery then gave several updates on FEMA funding for damage from the 2012 flood; over half of the funds have now been approved, though some were rejected, a small sum is going through an appeals process, and a large chunk—some $15 million in stream restoration—is still pending approval. Satisfied, the Council proceeded to approve the consent agenda unanimously, and CAO Montgomery asked them to return a resolution on street improvement to Administration.

Next up was a resolution for the purchase of three street maintenance trucks, and Councilor Fosle, who was in a combative mood all night long, voiced his displeasure. “Maybe if I keep saying this, someone will listen,” he said, griping that he had been a mechanic for thirty years and that the maintenance costs and supposed wear-and-tear on the existing city vehicles were out of hand. He figured the city either “asked for lemon vehicles” or that the Facilities Department is “trying to make money for itself.”

Council Stauber said he “appreciated Councilor Fosle’s expertise,” and also announced he would not support the measure. CAO Montgomery said the city had run comparisons to other shops and found the repair rates comparable; Councilor Krause pressed him on these numbers, but appeared to be satisfied by the response. Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Krug expressed support and emphasized how well-informed they were, with Krug detailing her visit to the garage last year to inspect the city fleet. Councilor Fosle, while unconvinced, did agree with the other Councilors over the need to address the billing system. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.

The next two topics of debate both involved the issuance of temporary liquor licenses to local establishments. The first was for the recently reopened Hacienda del Sol restaurant, which owes the city over $33,000 in back taxes and utility bills; Councilor Julsrud, while professing her love for Hacienda, noted that “that’s a lot of burritos,” and asked CAO Montgomery about its financial stability. CAO Montgomery lacked exact numbers but said the restaurant had been meeting deadlines for some time, and he also reassured Councilor Krause that a “tenacious” new employee was on hand to flag potentially troublesome businesses and ensure this wouldn’t happen again. Councilor Gardner pointed out that a liquor license would make it easier for Hacienda to pay back its tab, and Councilor Julsrud recommended further short extensions of the license so as to hold the restaurant accountable. The measure passed, 9-0.

The second license concerned the Flame Nightclub, which was seeking to expand its operation, though its owner had admitted to Council President Boyle that recent troubles with crime around the establishment would likely force the delay in the expansion. The police had compared the crime numbers at the Flame to other local bars at a meeting during the previous week, but Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Julsrud did not think it was a particularly good comparison, as the Flame is a fairly unique establishment. Given the confusion, Councilors Krause and Larson said they hoped the resolution would be tabled, but Counsel advised the Council to go ahead and vote. Much grumbling and confusion followed; Councilors Gardner and Hartman suggested they approve the license anyway and give the Flame a test run to see if it had cleaned up its act, while Councilors Krug, Larson, and Krause thought it best to respect the unanimous ruling of an advisory council against the permit until the situation improved, which they were confident it would. Counsel assured Councilor Fosle that it would be easy for the Flame to re-apply, and the Councilors then voted down the license 7-2, with the votes in support coming from Councilors Gardner and Hartman.

The last contentious issue on the agenda involved a resolution supporting an assessment of the main Duluth Public Library facility. Councilor Larson led the charge, noting heavy usage and major inefficiencies in the 33-year-old building, and CAO Montgomery said the existing building is at a “tipping point” due to its serious energy inefficiencies and the evolution in library usage over the years. Councilor Krause asked where the money would come from; while CAO Montgomery’s answer was vague, Councilor Larson assured him funds had already been allocated from the 2011 Capital Fund.

Councilor Fosle was not a fan of the resolution. He noted that there are many buildings older than this one—a charge that Councilor Hartman called “unfair to say out loud” given the differences among the buildings in question—and wondered why the Council should be thinking about replacing a functional building when community centers across the city were still closed. He went on to rail against how the Council was “spending more money every time we turn around,” raising taxes and fees; “this kind of funding has to stop,” he insisted.

Several people in the room responded to his outburst. Councilor Julsrud said that the library is, effectively, a community center, and CAO Montgomery was at pains to counter Councilor Fosle’s portrayal of the city’s tax record. Councilor Gardner said the community centers and the library were not under the same umbrella; this led Councilor to Fosle to ask whether a referendum passed in the 2011 election covered both parks and libraries. CAO Montgomery answered that it only provided money for parks; his response, while technically correct, failed to note that the general fund savings from the referendum’s passage were explicitly allocated for the library. (Full disclosure: I am currently employed in a temporary position by the Duluth Public Library.) He also explained to Councilor Fosle that there was no good way to tell how many library users were Duluth residents.

Councilor Krause, in an effort to hold the middle ground, acknowledged Councilor Fosle’s worries about the community centers, and noted that their usage, when trails and youth sports are taken into account, could easily exceed that of the library. However, given that the funding for the assessment had already been budgeted, he announced his support for the resolution. It passed, 8-1, leaving Councilor Fosle to grumble during the closing remarks about how such resolutions seem to snowball far beyond their initial intent. It concluded a long night of calls for fiscal restraint from Councilor Fosle; while that voice needs to be heard, his complaints often appeared haphazard and not altogether coherent. Until he can pull together his critiques into a well-honed message, he will be unlikely to generate more than a few polite nods from the Councilors who are closest to him in their political views. Otherwise, he comes across as a loose cannon, and it requires serious effort to filter his most cogent points out from all the other noise.