Loose Ends and Old Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/24/14

After two weeks of drama following its last regular meeting, the Duluth City Council had a tame night on Monday. The agenda was short, the crowd was light, and Councilor Sipress was happily settled into his new seat on the far end of the dais. The meeting opened with some mundane announcements, as President Krug plugged the State of the City address this coming Monday (6 PM, Spirit Mountain Chalet), and there were mentions of snow removal and the need to fill vacancies on the Human Rights Committee.

After the speakers (all repeat appearances) and the passage of the consent agenda, the Council moved on to a resolution of intent to amend the city charter in order to address Council vacancies. The resolution had no specifics, and simply established the four Councilors (Gardner, Hanson, Julsrud, Larson) who will take the lead on the effort to work with the charter commission. Councilor Russ had some issues with the vague language, but Councilor Gardner reassured her that there will be plenty of time to explore all options; she also suggested that, if feasible, any elections in off years should be held concurrent to state and national elections in November. Councilor Gardner reminded her colleagues that they needed nine votes to amend the charter, and invited everyone to bring forward ideas, while Councilor Filipovich urged caution and patience. Councilor Larson asked for a Committee of the Whole meeting on the process before the proposal is finalized, and Councilor Sipress reiterated the emphasis on the non-binding nature of the proposal. It passed 9-0, which Councilor Gardner called a “good start.”

Next up was a resolution for the purchase of a hydro-excavator, which is a machine that uses hot water to clear dirt around natural gas pipes without risking damage to the pipes. Councilor Fosle had pulled it because he figured the new Councilors hadn’t heard his spiel on vehicle purchases yet; as he has several times during his time on the Council, he cited his 30 years as a mechanic in declaring the repair costs of machines far too high, though he also added some cautious optimism about a new plan by the administration to review these costs. Councilors Julsrud and Filipovich talked up the job done by the city’s Public Works Department, while Councilor Gardner explained that all the depth of the frost this winter is part of the reason behind the number of breaks this year. President Krug asked CAO Montgomery for an update on Councilor Fosle’s request for a more thorough inventory, and was told that a fleet consulting firm will do an assessment on the city. An exchange between Councilor Russ and CAO Montgomery had CAO Montgomery explaining the criteria the city uses when deciding whether to repair a vehicle or purchase a new one. The resolution ultimately passed 8-1, with Councilor Fosle providing the dissent.

The Council moved on to a resolution applying for a grant for the cross-city bike trail; as Councilor Larson explained, they had not received a grant they’d applied for last fall, which would have funded the trail through the lower parts of Enger Park. Councilor Fosle, maintaining his stance against trail funding, was the lone ‘no’ vote there. Two ordinances selling city property passed unanimously, as did a pair of permits for the new Duluth Transit Authority center on Michigan Street, though Councilor Hanson abstained from those two votes due to his business relationship with the DTA. The permits created a ramp and a skywalk, Councilor Gardner explained, and were unanimously approved by the Planning Commission.

Councilor Russ celebrated Duluth’s snow removal when compared to Minneapolis in the closing remarks, but most of that period was devoted to discussion of the Lakewalk extension plan that was on the table two meetings ago. CAO Montgomery explained that engineers were working on plans for both the paved Lakewalk along Water Street and a path along the lakefront, behind the Ledges and Beacon Pointe developments, as requested by the Council. Councilor Gardner shared her suspicions that the plan they produced would be cost-prohibitive, but figured the city would hammer out a more sensible plan in time. Councilor Hanson then had a lengthy back-and-forth with CAO Montgomery as he sorted out the details; he asked if there was a funding source, and was told that there was one in place, but the funds had been diverted during a budget crunch in 2007 and 2008, and restoring that funding would mean taking money from something else. There were also questions about some fencing in that area that may be on city property, though CAO Montgomery couldn’t provide a definitive answer on that front, and promised further updates in time.

It wasn’t a terribly exciting night, but the Council did take a much-needed first step toward cleaning up the process for filling Council vacancies, and tonight’s resolution laid the groundwork for a lot of debate in coming weeks. It was also good to see the Lakewalk issue revisited in a substantive way. After a brief departure, Duluth is back to Don Ness’s favorite type of government—boring government—and while I don’t always endorse that, it was a blessed relief this time around.

Lurching Toward a Lakewalk: Duluth City Council Notes, 1/27/14

While much of the city shut down in the bitter cold, the beat went on in the Council Chamber this week. The crowd was fairly sparse but spirited—the clerk deputized me to close the doors on people chattering in the hall at one point—and there was also an empty seat at one end of the dais, as Councilor Boyle had tendered his resignation following his victory in the special election for a seat on the County Board. Boyle was suffering from a case of the flu and thus unable to say a proper goodbye, though President Krug said she’d invite him to do so at a later date.

In the opening comments, Councilor Gardner talked of her resolution to streamline the process to find his appointment, a necessary step following last fall’s botched effort to fill the seat of outgoing Councilor Garry Krause. She established a timeline: the deadline for applications is this Friday (Jan. 31) at 4:30; there will be interviews of February 6; Councilors will choose three finalists by February 7; the Council will interview them on the 10th; and they will then vote on the Councilor at a special meeting that same day. She also informed the public that no one has applied for the spot yet, so if you live in Congdon, around the UMD campus, or in Kenwood, your odds might be pretty good if you’re interested.

The consent agenda passed unanimously. The next three votes, all involving smallish sums of money for such items as the Sister Cities program and the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Rail Alliance, and an office design, passed without debate. Councilor Fosle opposed all three, and Councilor Julsrud joined him on the rail alliance. Councilor Gardner’s process to fill the vacant 2nd District seat passed unanimously after a few minor procedural questions, and a move to bestow landmark status on the Chester Park United Methodist Church, planned for reuse as a dance studio, passed unanimously.

Next up was the main event of the evening, a resolution authorizing a grant application for the completion of the Lakewalk between 21st and 23rd Aves. East. (This is the stretch between the parking lot at the east end of the Lakewalk and its resumption at the corner of 23rd and Water St., in front of the Beacon Pointe development.) The measure, pushed by the administration, would create a Lakewalk on the north side of Water Street opposite Beacon Pointe. There were four citizen speakers, two for and two against. The supporters were with the Friends of the Lakewalk organization, and cited safety concerns with heavy trail-use traffic on Water St. and a survey of their twenty members that indicated widespread support. The two opponents reminded Councilors that the plan for the cross-city trail had insisted upon a trail along the lakefront, not a street separated from the lake by a row of condos, and suspected a bait-and-switch. They recommended the tabling of the measure.

CAO Montgomery opened the discussion by saying that tabling would effectively kill the bill, as the city would miss the grant application deadline. This was enough to sway Councilor Julsrud toward support, and she said the city could always reject the grant if it later decided it didn’t like the plan. Councilor Gardner, on the other hand, was not at all swayed. She was especially worried by the Second District vacancy on the Council; as this part of the Lakewalk goes that district, residents’ voices were perhaps unheard. Councilor Russ agreed, saying “something went terribly wrong” in the process; she complained of the developers’ apparent encroachment on the lakefront, the lack of quality signage, and said the new proposal was “really just widening the sidewalk,” and would do nothing to keep bicyclists off the road. Councilor Filipovich echoed these general sentiments and added that there would be more opportunities to ask for money later; CAO Montgomery said the city couldn’t rely on future federal grants, while Councilor Gardner said there certainly would be future opportunities.

Councilor Larson and President Krug, on the other hand, expressed support. They thought any safety-improving measure was commendable and cited the Lakeside neighborhood Lakewalk as an example of a successful path away from the lakeshore. Councilor Gardner, after pausing to stare down the whispering Councilors Hanson and Julsrud, reiterated many of her critiques, called the whole process “very disturbing,” and questioned the current composition of the Friends of the Lakewalk. Councilor Fosle, meanwhile, shared some history with the rest of the Council, digging up resolutions from 2007 and 2008 establishing the initial intent to both widen the Water St. sidewalk and build a trail along the lakefront. Councilor Filipovich worried about a possible loss of political will for the lakefront trail if the Council were to pass only the sidewalk portion. “There’s a lot of despair already,” Councilor Gardner agreed, and both she and Councilor Filipovich wondered why the administration was pushing this during the week of the deadline.

As it became clear the Council did not have the votes to pass the measure, the reason behind the whisperings of Councilors Julsrud and Hanson came out, as they introduced an amendment to reassert the intent behind the original 2007 and 2008 resolutions. There was then a very long stretch of confused but ultimately productive wrangling, as the Councilors offered different wordings for the amendment and even toyed with waiting until a later date to clarify their intent so as to not be too “sloppy,” in the words of Councilor Larson. Councilor Gardner expressed qualified support for the amendment, and they finally settled on three points, as laid out by Councilor Hanson: a reaffirmation of the 2007 and 2008 resolutions, a public meeting to discuss the plan, and a commitment to “concurrently” find solutions to the situation. “We’re finally going to vote on something!” President Krug celebrated, and the amendment passed, 7-1, with Councilor Fosle in opposition.

After that the Council moved to consider the resolution proper, and Councilor Fosle explained his opposition: these sorts of promises are easily forgotten—the 07 and 08 resolutions would have been, had he himself not gone and dug them up earlier that day—and may come to nothing. He was also the lone vote against the resolution, which passed, 7-1.

The rest of the agenda passed relatively quickly. Councilor Fosle was the lone vote against a change in street and sidewalk obstruction fees, and was joined by Councilor Julsrud in a protest vote against Armory culvert repair (see here for the original details on this debate). Councilor Fosle amended a resolution that accepted a grant for emerald ash borer testing in Duluth trees to clean up its misleading language, and also celebrated the timing of a water utility improvement project; both passed unanimously. Councilor Gardner got a good laugh with her shock at the fact that the city was paying for the added costs of the harsh winter with excess revenue (“We have excess revenue?!”), and Councilor Hanson was pleased to hear these measures would have no appreciable impact on the general fund. Finally, the Council pushed back the months for its sprinkling credit to May through September, with Councilor Russ laughing that the city may as well start the credit in June, what with the weather Duluth has had lately.

It was an efficient night for the Council outside of the Lakewalk debate, and even there, they got things done after some spirited debate. There were powerful criticisms, a decent defense, and, ultimately, a sensible compromise. Even Councilor Fosle, who was having none of the whole affair, deserves praise for dispassionately providing information for everyone else, and reiterating the worry about political will. The Councilors who opposed the resolution as initially written must keep up the pressure to make sure the lakefront path isn’t lost in the shuffle, but if they do, there is a good chance the initial vision for the Lakewalk will still come to fruition. As Councilor Hanson said, they need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.