Duluth’s Comings and Goings

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

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.

Dog Parks and Lessons from the Past: Duluth City Council Notes, 11/12/13

What with the Veterans’ Day holiday, Duluth’s first post-election City Council meeting was pushed back to Tuesday this week. There was a decent crowd on hand, boosted by a brigade of high school students observing the meeting for class. CAO Montgomery was away, and Planning Director Keith Hamre filled his seat. It was also the first meeting for Mr. Howie Hanson, elected last week to fill the vacant Fourth District seat; this was a bit of a struggle for the woman who calls roll, but she sorted it out in the end. Councilor Hanson proceeded to say one word for the rest of the meeting.

With no general citizen speakers, the Council marched straight through the consent agenda and into the consideration of a bunch of bonds and capital equipment notes. There was no discussion here, and the measures passed by the predictable 7-2 margin, with fiscal conservative Councilors Fosle and Stauber opposing both. After that, it was on to the main event: discussion of a resolution identifying two Duluth parks, Lakeside’s Russell Square and Observation Park on Observation Hill, as sites for future dog parks.

Six citizen speakers came forward to speak on the issue; three in favor of the resolution, and three who had issues with one of the two sites. The first two, Mr. William Lynch and his wife, Denette, cheered the resolution. They noted that a dog fence was a cheap and simple project, and the heavy use of the Keene Creek dog park on the west side proved there was a demand. They said the two parks in question were underused and/or worn out, and insisted they would not cause any blight. A Lakeside resident “hated to be a not-in-my-backyard” person, but worried about parking and other animals in the park, saying she was a dog owner herself but did not think Russell Square was a good spot. Finally, noted boxer Zach Walters and another coach at his gym alongside Observation Park, Mr. Al Sands, spoke to the park’s value in its current state. They said they used the park and its jungle gym for classes and sports, and spoke of plans to create a program for returning veterans in need of an outlet; a dog fence, they argued, would limit their operations.

Councilor Hartman then took some time to explain the process, which he called “frustratingly slow,” and he pointed to the extensive vetting process undertaken by the Parks and Rec board. Councilor Larson added to his good vibes and emphasized that this was not a “point of no return” if later public input came out against the parks. She added that dogs are less of a safety hazard when given their own park than when roaming on trails (a fact to which this frequent Lester Park runner can attest—I’ve been nipped at several times). Councilor Gardner was rather snippy with Mr. Walters, accusing him of “taking over” the public park and suggesting this was not the proper venue for complaints; there was a process here, and he needed to attend the community meetings.

This brought Councilor Fosle to life, and he was in vintage Councilor Fosle Form as he meandered through a lengthy rebuttal. He noted that there was no money allocated for dog parks in the city’s capital improvement plan, and said Mr. Walters was indeed at the right meeting, wondering why a park neighbor had not been contacted about the process. He noted that these sorts of resolutions tend to generate momentum that is difficult to stop later on. He said he wouldn’t bring his own show dog to the park for fear of disease or attacks from other dogs. He worried about liability issues, wandered into a discussion of ATVs and the need to make parks useable for everyone, and floated the idea of using old hockey rink boards to set up dog pens.

Councilor Fosle found an unlikely ally in Councilor Julsrud, who asked Mr. Hamry if the resolution was redundant; he replied by saying this was a valid way of doing business, but admitted that, in his work on the Planning Commission, he preferred more of a “blank slate” approach. Councilor Julsrud agreed, saying the neighbors (and not the “dog park enthusiasts”) should have had more of an opportunity to engage the process. Councilor Hartman pushed back against Councilor Fosle’s legal concerns, asking Attorney Johnson if the city had been sued over dog bites at the Keene Creek park. No one had, though Councilor Fosle dragged out this rather silly point by pointing out that the park has been around longer than Atty. Johnson has. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Julsrud in opposition; the city will go forward with the planning process now, though citizens will still have opportunities to voice support or objections at community meetings.

Next up was a resolution discharging the city of a loan made to a condo developer. Councilor Stauber, sad to have his premonitions proven correct, lectured the rest of the council on taking money out of the Community Investment Trust (CIT)—the city’s “nest egg” for street repairs—and using it for interest-free loans on projects that might not work out. He supported the measure, as “something is better than nothing,” but warned the Council that they hadn’t seen the end of such troubles. Councilor Fosle concurred and predicted the complete exhaustion of the CIT in seven years, while Councilor Larson thanked the Administration for making sure the recovered money would go back into the CIT. The resolution passed unanimously.

The Council then took up a $797,000 contract to repair a flood-damaged Chester Creek culvert running beneath the Duluth Armory, and Councilor Julsrud again made her displeasure heard. While she supported the resolution, saying the city would likely end up in court otherwise, she insisted that the group charged with restoring the currently condemned Armory get its act together. If they fail to save the building, the city will have wasted a ton of money, and had it been demolished by now, the culvert would have been left open to the air and thus been far cheaper to repair. Councilor Stauber thanked her for her words and gave everyone another history lesson, saying the Armory saga was “becoming a nightmare,” and that past Councils’ eagerness to support the arts group currently charged with saving the Armory—which it purchased with a $1 check that bounced—had cost it far better alternatives. Councilor Gardner pointed out that other things would be damaged if the culvert were not repaired, and everyone got on board to pass the resolution, 9-0.  

The last item on the agenda was a re-zoning of the old Central High School property, which had Councilor Fosle congratulating the school district for its renewed attempts to sell it. Here, Councilor Hanson finally got his one word in: “abstain.” The other Councilors all supported the ordinance, and it passed, 8-0. The closing comments featured mentions of several community meetings on such diverse topics as poverty (Gardner and Krug), crime in Lincoln Park (Krug), councilor appointment processes (Gardner), and ATV trails (Fosle); people hoping for free food at said meetings (Stauber); and gripes about parking at City Hall (Fosle).

The meeting had a transitional feel to it. Councilor Stauber in particular seemed keen to make a mark before he takes his leave, with his cautionary tales of good ideas gone awry when money is thrown around too freely. After the election, which resulted in a huge left-leaning majority on the Council, I suggested that the Council, whatever its ideological proclivities, had to make sure there was quality dialogue, and that no group of people was left out of the debate. Councilor Fosle achieved that with his usual stream-of-consciousness objections, but that was to be expected; in this meeting, I was most impressed by Councilor Julsrud, who was not afraid to ask sharp questions and demand results, no matter her stance on the issue at hand. From a good governance standpoint, this is what I want to hear out of elected representatives: crisp questions, a willingness to learn from the past, careful consideration of community input, and a concise articulation of why they’re voting the way they are. A good council has a healthy variety of styles and approaches, of course, but with ideological divides unlikely to hold up the Duluth City Council, its members must be careful to avoid the most immediate danger: groupthink. They did a decent job of that on Tuesday night, and must continue to do so going forward.