In Which Councilor Fosle Is Very Happy: Duluth City Council Notes, 3/24/14

It was a fast and rather uneventful night in the Duluth City Council Chamber on Monday. The meeting opened with a public hearing on proposed tax increment financing (TIF) for the planned rehabilitation of the former Lincoln Park Middle School into housing units and community space. Mr. Rick Ball from the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and Mr. Andy Hughes of development partner Sherman Associates gave a brief overview and fielded questions, explaining that the lower-than-market-rate rents in the building did not make it financially feasible without tax help. Several Councilors wanted to be sure the TIF qualification had passed a test run by an outside agency, which it had, though the discussion didn’t go much further than that; the public meeting will remain open at the next meeting.

The Council then received updates on various ongoing issues. CAO Montgomery briefed them on frozen waterlines, which have been unusually common this winter due to the cold temperatures, and hoped for some relief in the coming weeks. Councilor Gardner gave a status update on proposed charter revisions to fill Council vacancies; she said the special election changes would be “sticky,” but said the committee had another meeting on Friday. Councilor Larson said that U.S. Sen. Al Franken would be willing to take up legislation on the logging truck rerouting plan when it came forward. The community speakers were both repeats, though Ms. Alison Clark’s continued push for a lakefront Lakewalk by Beacon Pointe included a pointed question over how much a paved path there would cost.

Councilor Fosle pulled one resolution off the consent agenda, but only to offer his praise for the administration: after six years of endless lobbying, the city has finally brought in a consultant to study its fleet services operations. Councilor Fosle has long contended that the city spends far too much in this department, and was pleased to see the review would be done by an out-of-state consultant with no skin in the game. Councilor Gardner thanked Councilor Fosle for his persistence, and Councilor Hanson expressed his confidence that savings would cover the expenditures for the review. It passed unanimously, as did the rest of the consent agenda. The review, according to CAO Montgomery, should be done by the end of summer.

Naturally, the next resolution up was a purchase of several trucks for the city, and a laughing Councilor Fosle turned around and said “this is exactly what I’m talking about,” noting the low mileage on the three trucks being replaced. CAO Montgomery explained that the trucks were high-wear vehicles and that the new ones were slightly larger, while Councilor Sipress gave a nod to Councilor Fosle’s concerns but said he’d show his support for the administration’s planned review by voting in good faith on these trucks. The resolution passed 8-1.

The Council then appointed Councilor Sipress to the Public Utilities Commission, an exercise that involved a lot of repetition of nice words about Councilor Sipress. He committed himself to the Commission for his full term, which pleased Councilor Julsrud; Councilor Hanson terrorized the Council by asking if they’d use ranked-choice voting if someone else were to enter the race, and Councilor Filipovich, now a battle-scarred veteran of the Commission after his appointment two months ago, welcomed the new junior member aboard after a 9-0 vote in his favor.

Once again a grant application for a portion of the cross-city mountain bike trail was on the agenda, and as usual it inspired some mild dissent, with Councilor Hanson joining Councilor Fosle in the ‘no’ column, saying the city’s $63,000 matching contribution would be better used filling potholes. President Krug noted that these funds had to come out of a portion of the parks budget reserved for capital projects, and the resolution passed 7-2.

Two citizen speakers came forward on the next resolution, which implemented a master plan for the Gary-New Duluth Recreation Area; Mr. Dan Hinnenkamp and Mr. Mark Boben, both longtime activists in the area, shared their excitement for the project. Mr. Boben explained that the project would include new soccer fields, picnic areas, a skating rink, a community garden, a dog park, basketball courts, and a skate park—this last feature being one of the highlights, with professional planners coming in to create the design. (Mr. Hinnenkamp said that he’d driven by the current, mediocre skate park recently and saw a group of boys who had shoveled off three feet of snow so they could use it.) Councilor Larson praised Councilor Fosle for his involvement throughout the planning process, and he in turn praised Mr. Boben’s leadership and commitment. The resolution passed unanimously.

In the closing comments, Councilor Russ announced that a plan to formally establish Ranya, Iraq as a Duluth Sister City would be coming forward at the next meeting. Councilor Larson previewed a “trails damage ordinance” she planned to introduce in April, which will seek to educate citizens on how to protect trails and use them as intended. She also asked about results from the recent housing summit, and was promised a follow-up by CAO Montgomery. Councilor Fosle closed the meeting by plugging a steering committee meeting on ATV trails on March 31 at the Fire Training Center at 6:00 PM, and wished his mother a happy birthday and passing along his love.

It was a quick and painless night in the Council Chamber, and even Councilor Fosle, usually in the minority, was all smiles as he moved through a pair of resolutions he’d long worked for. It’s an encouraging sign: it would be easy for everyone else in the room to marginalize him, but instead they’re taking up some of his ideas, and that makes him happy to work with them. The collegial Council will enjoy two weeks off before returning to solve all of Duluth’s ills, and hopefully all the snow will melt away in that time. Perhaps then someone can take down the reindeer and the Christmas tree still sitting atop the fountain in Government Plaza…

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.

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.

A Long and Awkward Good-Bye for Councilor Krause: Duluth City Council Notes, 9/23/13

It was an odd night at City Hall. The crowd was modest in size, there were no citizen speakers, and there were no grave disputes between the Councilors beyond the usual, civil back-and-forth. Yet somehow, it also wound up being the ugliest meeting I’ve seen since I started attending them. It was also the end of an era, so to speak, as Councilor Krause’s resignation was set to take effect after the meeting; indeed, his departure was at the root of the evening’s troubles. The Council’s bloc of fiscal conservatives has now shrunk from three to two, but the frustrations had nothing to do with Councilor Krause’s principled stands, nor the ideology of his successor. In fact, thanks to a heap of Council confusion, he has no successor.

President Boyle began the night by convening a special meeting to appoint Councilor Krause’s replacement, in which Councilor Krause was not allowed to participate. (Councilor Krug was also absent, leaving the Council with seven voting members for the special meeting.) President Boyle announced that the Council had interviewed two candidates, Mr. Zachary Radzak and Mr. Gary Eckenberg, found them both impressive, and invited the Councilors to share their opinions on each.

Councilor Stauber went first, but instead of endorsing one of the two candidates, he shared his serious concerns about the selection process. He was upset there had been no public hearing, that the process was being conducted via resolution (and hence technically open to a veto by Mayor Ness), and thought it was pointless to appoint someone only until the November 5 election. Councilor Gardner defended the process, saying it had worked for past vacancies (including two for Councilor Krause’s 4th District seat in the past four years), and while she agreed there was room for improvement, she said it would have to do for this particular situation. She then endorsed Mr. Eckenberg for the position, as he is a past member of the Council and would be able to hit the ground running.

Next, Councilor Fosle demanded an answer as to when the appointed Councilor’s term would end. City Attorney Gunnar Johnson replied that the Council would sit the person elected in November at the next Council meeting; it was his interpretation that past Councils had violated the City Charter in not doing so. Satisfied, Councilors Hartman, Julsrud, and Larson all told Mr. Radzak he was an impressive candidate, but expressed their support for Mr. Eckenberg.

At that point, Mr. Eckenberg came forward, held a whispered conversation with Atty. Johnson, and then took the stand before the Council. He said he had been under the impression that the person appointed to fill Councilor Krause’s seat would stay on the Council until January, when the Councilor elected to the seat in November would normally take office. A one-month appointment, he said, made zero sense, and would not allow him to do anything of substance. The 4th District could survive for a month without representation. He thus withdrew his name from consideration.

This rather understandably threw off the entire meeting, and Councilor Boyle brought forward yet another confusing point: Councilor Krause’s name will appear on the ballot in November, and if he were to win, the seat would then be his. If that were to happen, the Council would need to go through the re-appointment process yet again. Councilor Fosle asked if the resolution could be amended to allow Mr. Eckenberg to serve until January, but Atty. Johnson said it could not, as that would be a violation of the Charter.

For his part, Councilor Stauber was rather pleased with this development. He agreed that a one-month appointment did no good, and that the Council could simply appoint someone to fill the seat if Councilor Krause were to win. This irked Councilor Gardner, who said there was nothing “simple” about the whole process. She accused Councilor Stauber of selective interpretation of the Charter, which insists that vacancies on the Council must be filled in a timely manner. She implored Mr. Eckenberg to reconsider his position, but Mr. Eckenberg politely declined, saying he had been misled about what he was applying for.

An exasperated Councilor Julsrud apologized to Mr. Eckenberg, and suggested the Council pull the measure and follow Councilor Stauber’s suggestion. Councilor Hartman disagreed, admitting a one-month appointment made “no sense,” but that, due to the Charter, “sometimes we have to do things that make no sense.” The Council, however, chose to make sense. It pulled the resolution, 4-3, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, Stauber, and Boyle in support. Councilor Krause’s seat will thus remain open until after the November election.

With this sloppy affair mercifully over, the Council kicked off its actual meeting, in which CAO Montgomery began by presenting Councilor Krause with a plaque thanking him for his service. Councilor Krause in turn thanked him, the Council, the City Hall staff, and the city employees who are on the front lines of resolving city problems. The consent agenda then passed, 8-0. A resolution creating a pedestrian underpass under Haines Road passed, 6-2, with Councilors Fosle and Krause complaining about unnecessary expenditures.

The major topic of debate for the meeting proper was a plan to finance a phase of construction of the cross-city trail. This particular section, extending from Canal Park to 30th Avenue West, would cost $1.3 million, though a chunk of that sum would be paid by federal and DNR grants. Once again, there was some exhausting bureaucratic wrangling, as the ordinance authorizing the bonds to pay for the project and the resolution awarding the contract were in an illogical order on the meeting agenda. Once Atty. Johnson resolved the confusion, debate ensued.

To no one’s great surprise, the Council’s three fiscal conservatives shared their doubts about the plan. Councilor Krause called Duluth a “large city with many cities in it,” whatever other people might try to say, and that the residents of his district appeared not to value the trail as much as the still-shuttered community centers. (This phase of the project is primarily in Councilor Krause’s district.) He and Councilor Stauber questioned the wisdom of incurring more bonding debt when the city had already taken on more debt over the previous year; CAO Montgomery countered by saying the city had reduced its debt since 2007. Councilor Fosle went so far as to challenge the Council’s power to use bonding to fund trails, but both CAO Montgomery and Atty. Johnson refuted his point.

Councilor Hartman pushed CAO Montgomery for more details on the other funding sources, and he replied by saying that roughly 70% of the project would be paid for in grants. The project, he argued, was a good way to leverage the city’s money, as it turned $450,000 worth of money into $1.8 million in trails, whereas using that same $450,000 on streets would only result in $450,000 worth of street improvements. He also noted the value of trails as a tourist attraction, and Councilor Hartman added that commuters using the trail reduced wear and tear on the streets.

Councilor Krause said all of this leveraging was well and good, but in the end it still added to city long-term operating costs, and he therefore could not support it. Councilor Stauber repeated his dissatisfaction, and Councilors Fosle and Gardner both complained about the inadequate map they’d been given of the plans. Mapping issue aside, both measures related to the cross-city trail passed, 5-3; predictably, Councilors Krause, Stauber, and Fosle were the dissenters.

The Council wrapped up its business with the unanimous approval of a zoning reclassification, and a brief but contentious meeting came to an end. In the closing comments, Councilor Hartman pleaded that Atty. Johnson inform the Councilors of changes in interpretation of the City Charter before the meeting if at all possible, as the evening’s developments had left them in a “very awkward position,” and “didn’t look good.” Once again, his closing comments accurately summed up the mood of the meeting, in which dysfunction over Councilor Krause’s seat overwhelmed any substantive achievements later on. It was also an unfortunate end to Councilor Krause’s tenure on the Council; while I have to respect him greatly for his reasoned critiques and attempts to compromise, this entire process was not pretty, and the timing of his departure was poor, to say the least. The eight-member Council will now have to press on without him, and must clearly find a way to streamline its process for appointing replacement Councilors. Duluth deserves something far cleaner than what it got in this meeting.