Councilor Hanson feels hung out, dry

John Ramos

Each year, the Duluth city council holds a Saturday retreat to discuss issues of interest and get to know one another in a less formal setting than City Hall. Last year, I attended and recorded the event, which was held in a conference room at the Holiday Inn. What I heard was several city councilors attacking and gossiping about one of their fellow councilors, Jay Fosle, who was not there. Fosle was roundly criticized for not being a team player, for not attending meetings, and generally for being a “disruptive,” “destructive,” “annoying” influence on the council. Nobody knew why Fosle was missing meetings—in fact, he was dealing with a serious health issue—but that did not stop the criticism. I was quite happy to write an article exposing the awful behavior.

Councilor Howie Hanson was the worst offender, but, to his credit, he was also the only councilor who publicly apologized to Fosle after my article appeared, a fact which I noted approvingly in a follow-up column. At that point, I considered the matter closed, but Hanson recently decided to reopen it.

The council is in the process of scheduling their 2017 retreat. At their meeting of January 23, Hanson had this to say.

Howie Hanson: With regard to the council retreat, I think it’s extremely helpful for a myriad of reasons. However, for those of us who were on it a year ago when we met, it really didn’t work out too well, politically speaking, because being that it was an open meeting, there was one member of the media there who hung us out to dry when we made some candid, heartfelt responses….I know, speaking just for myself and a councilor who has also indicated his or her concerns about this, that we would not be willing to participate in a similar type of forum [where a] facilitator [is] using their expertise to get us to open up and talk candidly about things of importance to us….The delicate words that were shared in that meeting were published….You know, we want to respect the open meeting law, of course, but I guess I think we kind of got blindsided on that.

As you can see, within the space of a year Councilor Hanson has neatly turned himself from an offender into a victim. In the new version of the story, he claims he was only doing what the moderators at the retreat had encouraged him to do—engage in open communication—and that he got “blindsided” by a trouble-making reporter in the process. This is revisionist history at its finest. My presence there was no secret. I identified myself to everybody at the beginning of the meeting. I and my recorder were in plain sight the whole time, and I even participated in the discussion slightly when the city’s chief administrative officer made a joke about all the Freedom of Information requests I submit. I also talked to Hanson himself during a break. There was no blindsiding involved.

Moreover, as the recording makes clear, the moderators at the retreat tried repeatedly to steer the conversation away from personal attacks on the absent Fosle and back to more productive ground, but Hanson (and others) just couldn’t stop jumping up and down on Fosle. Do you think they would have attacked him like that if he was in the room? I don’t. It was backstabbing, pure and simple—and if people want to keep bringing it up, I’ll be more than happy to keep saying so.

Councilor Fosle, Native American

On May 9, 2016, the city council heard a presentation from the Duluth Indigenous Commission regarding Native Americans and people of color in Duluth. As part of the presentation, the speakers circulated a pamphlet entitled “A Vision and Agenda for Racial Equity in OUR DULUTH.” The first page stated, “In our last election more people of color and American Indians ran for elected office than ever before, but none won their race….OUR DULUTH must foster leadership at all levels.”

This was a peculiar assertion to make, because Jay Fosle is Native American. He’s a registered member of the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa, and in 2016 he won his bid for a third term on the Duluth city council. It is bizarre that the pamphlet failed to mention Fosle’s political success and hold it up as an inspiration to others. A few years ago, when the council for the first time had a majority of women serving, it was hailed as a great achievement. You would think the presence of a Native American on the council would be a similar source of pride, but in fact the only person I’ve ever heard mention it publicly is Jay Fosle himself.

Fosle also happens to be the only current city councilor who is not a member of the DFL party (he belongs to no party). As someone who often votes no on things when everybody else votes yes, Fosle frequently finds himself the target of vitriol from the DFL. The vehemence of the opposition has always puzzled me, since the things Fosle votes no on generally pass 8-1 or 7-2 anyway, which means that he poses no real threat to the DFL majority. But the DFL really, really dislikes him, to the point that they deny him his very identity and heritage. I can only assume it’s because he’s conservative.

Freedom of information

One of the best windows into the inner workings of government that is available to citizens is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Not all government information is public, but a great deal of it is; in the past several years, I have used FOIA requests to break stories large and small. This experience has led me to a couple of realizations: (1) many government employees don’t have the slightest idea how to respond to a FOIA request; and (2) they will often make up fictitious requirements in an attempt to get out of it.

Recently, I requested some information regarding property taxes from St. Louis County. In his response, Human Resources Director Jim Gottschald said that the county would be more than happy to fulfill my request. He estimated that it would consume about $150 worth of staff time to do so. As soon as I paid, Gottschald said, they would get cracking.

This is illegal. Data practices law (in Minnesota statutes, it’s Chapter 13) says that when a citizen makes a request to inspect data, the government entity must assemble that data free of charge. If, after inspecting it, the citizen decides he wants copies, the government entity may then charge a reasonable amount for the copies. Naturally, I contacted the St. Louis County attorney and told him to set Mr. Gottschald straight, which he did. But if a citizen didn’t know any better, a $150 obstacle might very well cause them to abandon the request. That is what government employees hope will happen. They don’t want to waste their precious time running around for some pesky citizen.

A few months ago, when I requested information on Ironbound Studios from the city of Chisholm, it wasn’t just any government employee, but Chisholm city attorney Bryan Lindsay himself, who told me that I wasn’t allowed to see emails between Ironbound and the city because Ironbound was a private company. This might be true in some cases, but because Ironbound was doing business with the city, their communications regarding that business were covered under the same data practices requirements. I had to get an opinion from the state auditor’s office before Lindsay got whipped into line. Then—just like the county—he said he would let me see the information as soon as I reimbursed the city for staff time. I pointed the woefully ignorant city attorney to the relevant statute, and he finally complied. I then submitted two more data requests just for fun.

These are only a few of the tactics that government employees use to try to get out of doing their jobs. There are others. If any citizens out there are considering filing data requests on subjects that interest them—with the city, the county, the state, the police department or anyone else—but find the prospect daunting, I would be very happy to help. I can provide templates, advice and my personal participation in calling people if necessary. Just contact the Reader at info@readerduluth.com and ask them to forward your request to me.

Front yard parking tickets

Last August, the city mailed notices to neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota-Duluth, alerting residents that the city would be cracking down on cars parking in front yards in those neighborhoods. When landlords objected that the city was discriminating against certain neighborhoods, the city responded by saying that they intended to enforce the rule citywide, but they were starting in the areas where they received the most complaints. Since that time, more discussion has been held and compromises made. The city has now decided to delay enforcing the crackdown until  June, to give landlords and renters a longer time to react.

I was curious about the complaints. Were they all coming from a few people, or were they more spread out? Were certain properties complained about more than others? What, exactly, were people complaining about—aesthetics? Safety? Noise? All of the above?

Back in September, I asked city planner Keith Hamre how many complaints the city had received. He said, “I don’t know if it’s up to a hundred, but I know it’s dozens.” I contacted the police department, and was told by Deputy Chief Laura Marquardt that the police didn’t keep track of complaints, only citations and warnings. I thought it was unusual that the city was basing a controversial enforcement policy on complaints that could not be verified, but I dutifully filed a data request for all citations and warnings issued for front yard parking from January 2014 to August 2016.

In that 32-month period, the police department issued 58 citations and 1 warning for front yard parking—showing, if nothing else, that the police aren’t big fans of warning people. This averages out to just under two citations per month, but the tickets were not issued in an average way. They tended to come in large bursts interspersed with long periods of nothing, which probably reflects the police periodically responding to complaints. In November of 2014, for example, the police issued 14 citations, but in 18 of the 32 months they issued no tickets at all (Figure 1).

No addresses were included with the information I was given. I have no reason to doubt that most of the complaints came from around UMD, but it’s impossible to verify. License plate numbers, which were included, reveal that five vehicles were repeat offenders, receiving two tickets each.

In the first eight months of 2016, only two tickets and one warning were issued. As this was the period immediately preceding the crackdown letter, I had expected to find many more.

So that’s what I have on that.

Big news

There’s been a big change down at the Duluth News Tribune recently: They changed their flag font slightly on the front page. Not only that, they made it blue. On February 5, editor Rick Lubbers wrote a column extolling the changes. The slightly enlarged font, he explained, was “the result of many hours of meetings, loads of input, countless votes and myriad revisions.” The color blue was chosen because “Studies show that blue evokes thoughts of ‘trust,’ ‘strength,’ ‘dependability,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘sincerity,’ ‘harmony,’ and ‘communication’ - words we felt represented our mission at the News Tribune better than other colors and their meanings.” If readers looked closely, Lubbers wrote, they might even notice that “the ‘arms’ that come down from the top of the ‘T’ in ‘Tribune’ are not quite as pronounced as they once were.”

I know I speak for everyone when I say: Wow!