On Student Leadership

I’m finishing graduate school in less than a month. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, and this weekend’s end-of-year banquet at the Landmark Center in St. Paul made it all that much more real. I’ll have a lot to say about my two years as a Gopher in the coming month, and I will also reserve greater judgment until I’ve had more distance, as I did with my Georgetown blog post some two-plus years after graduation. (Even now, upon rereading, that post seems overly critical.) But first, I want to reflect a little on my time as a student leader for two very distinct student organizations. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering with either one, but in retrospect, they’ll certainly define my time at the U of M more than anything else.

First, I served as President of the student group that represents my graduate program, the Planning Student Organization (PSO). This was one of the true highlights of graduate school. We dramatically ramped up the PSO’s capacity, and cleaned house and left as much positive institutional memory as possible. Some of the work I am most proud of was exceptionally boring, as it involved writing out agendas and doing a lot of bureaucratic slogging in the hope that my successors will be able to apply for larger budgets. Still, it rarely felt like work. I was fortunate to have an excellent team of people with me, all of whom I’d count as good friends, and we managed to have a fair amount of fun along the way.

My time with PSO was also my own little experiment in hyper-local government. I grumble a bit when I learn that both the Dean and Assistant Dean of the Humphrey School have no knowledge that we exist, even though we probably hold as many events as any group in the school. But in reality, we’ve rather intentionally closed ourselves off from the affairs of state in the broader graduate school. Often, a leaner operation with less oversight makes for a much more flexible, less fraught environment. We have the good fortune of having an exceptional new program director, and he certainly made the context easier to navigate. Instead of complaining to a dean when things went awry, we tried to solve them through internal capacity. If we think the admissions office is short-changing our program in its visit days, we politely work with them, but find our own way to rope in new students.  While I’m willing to sign on to a few things and certainly spoke my mind about things that bothered me from time to time, I prefer this only as a last resort. Give me direct action over grumpy letters to the dean any day.

The Humphrey School is at times fractious, its meetings full of controversy and intrigue. In our little wing of the building, there was no such drama. A small program size helps, and we have our own issues of homogeneity and groupthink to work through. Still, it’s an eclectic group with a wide array of academic and experiential backgrounds, but all unified by a vague ideal of community and a desire to have a stake in its future. To the extent that we could invite people in to that and further their goals along this path, we succeeded.

My other commitment did get me out a bit more, as I served as the Managing Editor of the Humphrey Public Affairs Review. We’re still wrapping up our spring issue, and I’m sure I have a few frantic late nights left. Once again, I put in most of my work behind the scenes, going through the same group registration process and writing a syllabus for a class that I kinda sorta co-taught. The day-to-day work involved incessant emails, keeping up with editing teams and tracking down authors and making sure the whole issue is ready to go to press.

HPAR hasn’t always been easy to manage: it’s a new publication still building up its capacity, and its members’ diversity of interests, in many ways a strength, means we’re often not in the same place as the others. Generating submissions can be a challenge, especially when the people who signed up to be PR people never showed up to anything. I’ve never been a salesman, and I probably could have lightened up on my pathological penny-pinching and sprung for a few more marketing materials. Still, we found creative ways to use editors’ talents and connections to fill the void.

A year ago, back before I served on anything, I reflected on how student organization leadership seems both a political training ground and little league at once. I still think that. I honed valuable management skills here, and at times had to work around disinterest, neglect, or just sheer obliviousness from higher-ups. The low-stakes atmosphere lets this come with ease, and students can run things in a low-key, somewhat irreverent way that lessens the stress of commitments and leadership. Without seeming to try very hard, it builds community through ease and proximity.

Half the battle seems to involve just keeping the lights on and constantly having an agenda, looking for ways to do more and achieve those fairly basic goals laid out in mission statements. After that, simply sitting down with people and getting them in the room does most of the rest of the work. This can be especially difficult when everyone has frantic schedules, and there’s something about the calendar-invite era that seems especially counterproductive to having quick, easy check-ins. If everyone part ways with clear roles and distinct action items, things will get done.

My HPAR experience even further underscored the value of human contact. In our paper review process, all our submissions are edited without names attached, so as Managing Editor, it was my job to correspond with authors. This meant a fair amount of softening the sometimes vicious copy-edits that are all too easy to slap on an essay when there’s no name attached to it (something I was just as guilty of the year before) into something more constructive. On a few occasions, this involved setting up in-person meetings with authors and sitting down with them to talk out issues, further humanizing the process. It’s amazing how talking out what points one was trying to make in writing can show exactly what changes are necessary in a paper.

Above all, it’s important to identify when things are sliding off course early and say something right away, otherwise one will be left in one of those situations where one is writing a grumpy or bitter letter. As prolific a writer as I am sometimes, all the pixels in the world can’t convey many of the things that we can share in a conversation. Constant awareness and communication skills, in the end, are what make it all work. By staying transparent in my own operations, I hoped to create an environment where others were free to be transparent with me. There are occasional moments when leadership demands bold stands or declarations, but on a day-to-day basis, it mostly involves the mundane work of gentle stewardship and guidance.

I’ll concede to feeling a bit strange as I close in on the end: I poured myself in for a very brief amount of time, and now I’ll be disappearing (though still in touch). I’m far from perfect; I had a few moments of trial by fire, and a few things that I’d do differently in retrospect. It’s a bit absurd to consider the amount of time I spent doing grunt work for which the only compensation is a bit of sap at transition events and year-end parties. Career ladders are such that leadership skills aren’t always the most relevant things to one’s first post-graduation position, as evidenced by any PSO curriculum discussion in which people worry about their lack of “hard” skills. But even though I’ve wavered, I still learned a lot more about how to work with people and get things done than I ever could have in a classroom. There was never a dull moment, and even if my time here was fleeting, the connections should endure.

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

The Duluth City Council had a marathon for the ages on Monday night, enduring 4:20 of debate. (There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I won’t touch it.) There range of issues on the table ran the gamut, and in turn, there was a large, diverse crowd on hand to speak on many of the agenda items. For sanity’s sake I’m going to chop this post up by issue, rather than turn it into a dissertation; clarity will take priority over my aesthetic sensibilities so as to make sense of it all.

Introduction and Issues Inspiring Minimal Discussion

General community speakers included a Duluth East student announcing her presence and interest in more room for young people to participate in politics, a woman who worried about sinkholes, and a man with no apparent interest in being taken seriously. Councilor Fosle pulled a series of resolutions awarding parks grants and creating (or with the possibility of creating) new staffing positions so he could vote against them; they all passed, 8-1. There were no reports or updates on general issues of any significance, and nothing came off the consent agenda that hadn’t already been pulled.

Street Light Fees

First up was a plan to sunset the city’s unpopular street light fee, which had been tabled at the previous meeting. The resolution and related ordinance on the agenda aimed to phase out the fee by the end of 2018, but Councilor Fosle, the fee’s most vocal opponent, moved an amendment to slide that date up to 2015, repeating his stance that the fee constituted a double-tax. The amendment generated zero momentum; while Councilors Russ, Spiress, and Krug were sympathetic, they said the city couldn’t cut out that revenue so quickly without finding a replacement for lost revenue. The amendment failed, 1-8.

Supporters of the fee’s elimination then made their case. Councilor Gardner said the 2018 deadline was a long enough time frame to find an alternative, and Councilor Sipress explained his philosophical opposition to fees, which he called the “most unfair” type of tax. He later expressed support for a property tax increase to cover lost fee money, and several other Councilors signed on to that plan. Councilor Fosle did not, but he also joined the war against fees, reminding the audience of the time when Duluth made late night TV jokes for an aborted plan to impose a fee to fund fire departments and law enforcement.

Councilor Filipovich dissented, saying the discussion should be part of the annual budget process, and Councilor Larson worried about passing the burden off on future Councils and possible cuts to “quality of life services” such as libraries. The most vocal opposition, however, came from CAO Montgomery, who was as pointed as he has ever been. He was fine with the discussion, but said it should be part of the budget process, and that the lack of a funding plan ran counter to the “path to financial predictability and stability” that the administration has so desperately sought. A levy increase to cover the resultant shortfall “would not be modest,” and the city only had so much wiggle room in the amount it can levy while still covering everything else. President Krug agreed that it was “not responsible,” and thought the issue was being used to “teach a lesson on fees.”

Councilor Julsrud “completely disagree[d].” Fees, she insisted, are a “short-term fix,” not a long-term piece of the budget, and she said basic services should come through the levy. In the end, her logic prevailed by the narrowest of margins: the repeal of the fee passed 5-4, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, Julsrud, Russ, and Sipress making up the piecemeal coalition.

Street Repair Fees

The Council then moved from one fee to another and took up a proposed fee to pay for street repairs. There were nine citizen speakers on the topic, all opposed, though they came at it from different angles. Some, like Councilor Sipress in the previous exchange, claimed a fee was an unfair and regressive; others, such as Mr. Joe Kleiman, preferred a fee since it spread the burden, but opposed the heavier toll this particular fee would impose upon businesses. One speaker had issues with the process, and another suggested the city strong-arm the Fon Du Luth Casino into submission so as to regain its lost revenue.

Councilor Gardner then moved to introduce an amendment, which aimed to lessen the amount of double-taxing by limiting the assessment in the first year of the fee. There was much confusion over the language of the amendment, which led to an agonizingly long bureaucratic exchange, as amendments were made to the amendment and amendments made to the amendment to the amendment before all of the amendments were pulled and one clean one was put forward. Councilor Julsrud was its most vocal opponent, wondering about costs and saying it was only “a drop in the bucket” of the larger street picture. CAO Montgomery likewise grumbled about lost revenue, but while it would involve work, he said the amendment was “doable” when pressed by Councilor Filipovich. The amendment passed 5-4, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson, and Krug in support. This change was substantial enough that the ordinance must be read before the Council again at the next meeting, so the attached resolution was thus tabled as well.

Spirit Mountain

In a brief but blunt discussion, Councilor Julsrud used a resolution aiming to increase Spirit Mountain’s line of credit to “crack the whip” on its management. She complained about all of the red ink in its financials and said that “weather can’t be a repeated excuse” for an institution that must necessarily deal with winter weather. Councilor Hanson read a letter from a constituent that took Spirit Mountain to task for its failure to make payments in recent years, and noted the drastic increase in its credit limit. CAO Montgomery tried to explain the situation some, citing the particularly harsh winter as a problem, and talked up the fiscal chops of Spirit’s incoming director. Everyone echoed each other a lot, Councilor Fosle suggested they give the new director some time before grilling her, and Councilor Hanson made several abuses of figurative language. The resolution passed unanimously.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

One might think that electoral systems would not be an issue that inspires heated manifestos and bitter divisions. One would be wrong.

First, Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment that altered the language of the resolution, toning down its explicit recommendation for adopting IRV and simply asking the charter commission to study it. It also removed a timeline that sought to fast-track the charter change for a November ballot initiative. The Councilors noted that the 60 day allowance for charter commission review would likely allow enough time to get the measure on the ballot this fall if approved, so Councilor Sipress’s amendment passed fairly easily. Only Councilor Fosle spoke against it, calling it a “safeguard for a flawed system.”

Eleven citizen speakers came forward on IRV. Seven, including five locals and two people from FairVote Minnesota, an IRV advocacy group, spoke in favor of its implementation. They claimed a wide array of benefits, including greater representation of underrepresented groups, the elimination of high-cost and low-turnout primaries, and relative simplicity once voters are educated. Several also pointed to the success of the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral elections, which they said had been “more civil” due to the need for candidates to court second choice votes.

Three UMD math and statistics professors also spoke on the issue, and gave a somewhat less rosy picture of IRV. They said that, despite the shiny packaging, IRV does not perform as well under scrutiny. They cited flaws in the algorithm that lead to “voter regret,” IRV’s tendency to lock in two-party systems, and data from several cities with more extensive experience than Minneapolis that had moved away from IRV. They recommended further discussion of possible alternatives and offered to further educate the public. (One has offered to meet with me, so there will be some follow-up on this in the not-so-distant future.) A final speaker in opposition (unaffiliated with the professors) worried about the fast pace of implementation and thought the elderly and disabled would struggle to make sense of IRV.

Despite the easy passage of Councilor Sipress’s amendment, several Councilors still had strong reservations about implementing IRV. (It took a while before Councilor Hanson brought it up, but it was clear that the Council’s flailing attempt to use IRV back in February was hanging over the debate.) Councilor Julsrud mounted a defense of the primary system, saying it used highly engaged citizens to weed candidates who are not serious, and that IRV’s large election fields tend to favor “big personalities.” She suggested any move to IRV should be made in conjunction with the school board and the county so as to avoid confusion. Councilor Filipovich said he became “more skeptical” the more he learned about IRV, and that there was a fundamental question of how people’s votes are counted at play. Several Councilors also disliked the process, saying it should come from citizen demand rather than from above, and that there was no demand for change or explanation of “why now.” (This strikes me as by far the weakest counterargument; there were clearly citizens in the room who supported IRV and were trying to get things moving, and this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs a specific catalyst to get off the ground. If it’s properly vetted [an important ‘if’] and people approve, then go for it.)

Councilor Gardner took exception to these objections. If people really wanted to learn more, she said, they should send the recommendation on to the charter commission and let it do the work. This was their opportunity to learn more, she claimed, and it would be “closed-minded” to cut off the debate with a ‘no’ vote. Councilor Larson concurred, and insisted the conversation on IRV needed to continue.

As the debate went on, the Council’s professionalism went out the window. Councilor Fosle went into loose cannon mode, intimating that someone must be making money off the scheme to implement IRV; he also shot off about the number of speakers from Minneapolis, claiming he does not represent them. (Councilor Hanson repeated this; President Krug, an IRV champion, indignantly offered to provide addresses for all of the speakers.) Councilor Filipovich spoke far more pointedly that usual in opposition to IRV; while within the bounds of regular Council debate, President Krug tried to hurry him along, ostensibly because it was a long night and his comments weren’t all specific to the narrow intent of the resolution. Councilor Hanson continued to push her buttons with an attempt to ask questions, and while I agree that his debating style is often scattered, aimless and even grating at times (regardless of the issue), one got the clear sense that President Krug’s frustration with him had as much to do with his stance as with his method.

Councilor Hanson and President Krug traded barbs, with Hanson saying he felt like he was “being scolded by a schoolteacher,” Krug cutting him off, and Hanson saying this proved his point. The push for IRV failed 4-5, with support from Councilors Gardner, Krug, Larson, and Sipress. After the vote, President Krug topped everything off with a silly, grandstanding speech, saying “shame on you, Councilors,” for voting the proposal down, and that “you’ll have to sleep with that tonight.” Whatever the merits of a case, telling one’s colleagues that they should be ashamed of themselves has got to be among the most counterproductive options available after one has lost a close vote. President Krug leads the Council with authority, and there is much to be said for that, but she has shown an occasional tendency to allow her opinions to color her leadership and use her presidency as a bully pulpit. Her outburst at the end only confirmed this sneaking suspicion. I think (and hope) this is just an unintentional display of passion, but no matter what, it is both obvious and painful to watch. There is enough blame to go around, though: the Council lost its sense of perspective on this one.

Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Landmark Status

It was past 10:30 by the time the Council started in on an ordinance that would preserve the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial as a heritage preservation landmark, but seven speakers stuck around to support granting it that status. They cited its role as a gathering site, its importance in soothing past wounds, and its stimulation of reflection. Mr. David Woodward of the Heritage Preservation Commission explained in detail how the memorial qualified due to its place in a historic district and symbolic value, despite its relative newness. Councilor Gardner was most struck by the comments of Mr. Roger Grégoire, who said he knew of no other memorial of this type in the world, and applauded Duluth’s “extraordinary” efforts to seek “redemption.” In a vintage display of Duluthianism, if there is such a thing, Councilor Gardner said the process to establish the memorial “just seemed very natural.” The ordinance passed unanimously.  (A special Patient Cycle Award goes to speaker Portia Johnson’s teenage son, who stayed by her side through the entire night without any signs of restlessness.)

Rockridge Zoning and Conclusion

The one last thing on the agenda of some note was the re-zoning of the former Rockridge Elementary site. Mr. Mark Irving, a neighbor, stuck out the entire night to thank all parties for their work in finding a solution for everyone. It passed unanimously and without debate, prompting a sigh and a laugh from Mr. Kerry Leider of the School District, who had waited it out in the chance that something did come up. After that, I was the only person left in the audience chamber, doodling deliriously as the Council plowed through a heap of unanimously approved ordinances. In the closing comments, there was one final back-and-forth on the handling of the IRV debate between Councilor Fosle and President Krug, with Fosle saying Robert’s Rules of Order had not been followed, Krug saying the Council has a precedent of not following them religiously, and Fosle concluding by saying, “but we don’t cut people off, either.” That did cut off the debate, though, and everyone headed for the exits in exhaustion.