Lincoln Park upgrades

John Ramos

Lincoln Park retaining wall. Photo credit: John Ramos
Lincoln Park retaining wall. Photo credit: John Ramos

Lincoln Park (the park, not the neighborhood) is looking at big changes ahead. Driven by a $750,000 grant from the National Park Service and $550,000 from the city’s half-and-half tax, along with a number of smaller grants, the city is planning a $1.6 million project to get rid of the existing playground, build a new playground on the other side of Miller Creek, refurbish the historic stone pavilion, improve lighting, and close a portion of the road through the park, among other things.

The plan is based on the Lincoln Park Master Plan, which was approved by the City Council in 2016, but it also differs from the Master Plan in significant ways. One of the biggest changes is the proposed closure of Lincoln Park Drive. Rather than functioning as a through route, as it does now, Lincoln Park Drive would still enter the park from either end, but each segment would terminate at its respective parking lot; the stretch of road between the two parking lots would be replaced by a paved path following Miller Creek. Initially, the city had not considered doing this, but practical difficulties emerged during design work that led to the decision. [Edit, 2018-11-17. Contrary to this sentence, the master plan does include consideration of closing Lincoln Park Drive, as well as consideration of making it one-way. I regret the error. --JR

The road closure is related to another part of the project: The retaining wall on the east side of Lincoln Park Drive, which holds up a soccer field. Though less charismatic than the pavilion and stone bridges, the aging retaining wall is a major element of the park—and restoring it would carry a major price tag. “It is not only visibly failing to laypeople like me, but the engineering analysis revealed that it’s failing badly,” Director of Public Administration Jim Filby Williams told me in an interview this summer. “The cost to reconstruct it … as it was originally designed is $750,000. So half of our park restoration budget.” 

Rather than fixing the retaining wall, the city decided to remove it. Simply removing the blocks, however, would leave behind a crumbling, unsafe bank. Planners realized that the bank would have to be graded down to a more gradual slope. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room to slope the land down gradually, because Lincoln Park Drive was in the way. That’s when the idea to close Lincoln Park Drive arose.

“One of the things that we heard most often in the master planning process, [which is] actually one of the design drivers here, is the ways in which through traffic inhibits the use and enjoyment of the park. That’s one of the reasons why we moved the playground,” Filby Williams said. “So when we weighed that in the balance and thought, okay, if we’re maintaining kind of the historic carriageway look and feel, but closing off [the road to through traffic, we’ll save] enormous amounts of money to be able to invest [elsewhere in the park]. That felt like a better net value for the public.”

The first phase of the project, which includes all the elements I have mentioned, is expected to be completed in 2019. Some work has already begun. The small community center building on 25th Avenue West, slated for demolition for years, has been removed. A second phase, which does not yet have funding in place, would close the Third Street entrance. The road in from Third Street is “slumping” towards Miller Creek, such that city engineers believe it will be “prohibitively expensive to repair,” according to Filby Williams. A new entrance, according to the concept, would be built into the park from 25th Avenue West.

Given the changes that had been made to the plan since the City Council approved it, I asked Filby Williams if the city planned to bring the updated plan to the Council for an updated approval. He said no. “There are always surprises [that you discover in the planning] process … Our view was that … the plan that we’re moving forward with constructing is still deeply in the service of … the underlying goals of the original plan, such that we don’t feel like it’s necessary or appropriate [or] constructive to go through the additional public process … We certainly heard from the neighborhood—minus one person as far as I know—very vocal and enthusiastic support for the plan we’re bringing forward … So our citizens are signifying they’re with us on this.”

The Lincoln Park plan may be viewed online at duluthmn.gov/media/543797/lincoln-park-redesign-2018-public-meeting.pdf.

Johnston data request

I previously reported on the Duluth school district’s failure to comply with former School Board Member Art Johnston’s subject data request. A subject data request is a request for information about oneself. On March 2, 2018, Johnston submitted a subject data request to the school district, asking for district emails that mentioned him. By law, school districts and other governmental entities must fulfill subject data requests within 10 days.  When I wrote my first article about it about Johnston’s request, on June 28, 116 days had elapsed.

In July, Johnston asked the Minnesota Department of Administration for an opinion on whether the school district was responding appropriately to his data request. On July 30, 148 days after Johnston made his request, Commissioner Matthew Massman issued an opinion stating that the school district was not responding appropriately. Massman’s opinion was advisory only, but it was an opinion that was required to be given “deference” in a court of law.

On Aug. 27, his request still unfulfilled after 176 days, Johnston filed suit against the school district, alleging that the district had engaged in “unlawful and willful” conduct by failing to give him the data he asked for. The suit asked the court to order the school district to supply the requested data; to pay Johnston’s attorney’s fees; and to award Johnston any other damages the court deemed “just, proper, and equitable.”

When I spoke with Johnston on Nov. 12, he said, “After the lawsuit was filed, they started providing the information, and I’ve got all that they’re going to give me now, or all they say they have.” Some correspondence has taken place between attorneys for the school district and Johnston, but the case remains active. A pretrial hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 7, with a jury trial scheduled for Feb. 19.

Data request data request

Curious as to how many data requests the school district really handled, I filed a data request for data requests. I found that, in a three-and-a-half-year period—2015, 2016, 2017, and half of 2018—the school district handled 126 data requests, or an average of 36 per year. The requests ranged from very simple to extremely complicated, involved, and confusing.

I divided the requests into three categories: Business/Research requests, Citizen requests, and Journalist requests. The Business/Research category accounted for nearly half of all requests, at 59. Many of these requests were made by various sectors of the government (such as the county or the state) seeking information for their records—for example, numbers and types of school lunches served, number of children enrolled, and so on. A number of requests were made by university researchers assembling data for studies. Several were made by businesses seeking information for marketing or other purposes.

The Citizen category was next, with 42 requests. This category is lopsided, as a single irate citizen was responsible for a dozen or more of those requests, which he submitted in the form of angry, accusatory rants about the School Board and Superintendent “Billy Gronseth.” The rest were from calmer citizens wondering about teacher salaries, class size numbers, and many other things. The Citizen category also included several data requests made by two School Board members, Art Johnston and Harry Welty. The school administration does not give School Board members information unless they file data requests, and often it does not give them information even then. Think about that for a while.

Reporters made 25 data requests—the Duluth News Tribune and The Reader on the newspaper side, and a variety of local and Twin Cities-based TV stations on a variety of topics. This only amounts to about 7 data requests per year from the media, which indicates that the Duluth school district is severely underreported.

The last records management system on earth

On Nov. 8, 2018, Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken updated the City Council on the police department’s priorities and plans for the upcoming year. He was particularly excited about a new records management system they had recently decided to purchase. 
“The lifeblood of any police organization is your records system,” the chief told councilors. “Modern systems now have got field-based reporting, they’ve got the ability to eliminate … redundancy, to integrate a lot of different systems, including Property and Evidence, into one system, so that you have the ability to find efficiencies. It’s easier to pull data and reports out of it, so that we have better crime intelligence to direct our officers to where they should be spending their time.”

The price tag for the new system is $1.2 million. Chief Tusken acknowledged that that was a lot of money, but added happily, “Almost $900,000 of this [is coming] from the seizure at Last Place on Earth, from Jim Carlson’s operation there. So the lion’s share of this project is going to be paid for by somebody who, ironically, victimized this community terribly.”

If readers remember—and who could forget?—The Last Place On Earth was a head shop on Superior Street whose owner, Jim Carlson, began selling synthetic marijuana in 2010. Synthetic marijuana is a generic term for chemicals that resemble marijuana in chemical structure, but are slightly altered, to sidestep laws that make marijuana illegal. The completely unregulated chemicals are sprayed on dried leaf material and people smoke it like marijuana. Before long, it became common to see a line of people standing on the sidewalk outside Carlson’s store in the morning, waiting to get inside when the doors opened.

There was a lot of community outrage. The mayor made stern statements. In 2010, the City Council banned the sale of any “synthetic equivalent” or “structural analog” of marijuana, including “currently marketed products [such as] K2, Spice, Mojo, Smoke, Genie, Yucatan Fire, Diamond Spice, Red Dragon Smoke, Skunk, K2 Summit and Pandora Potpourri.”

Jim Carlson didn’t care. Insisting that what he was doing was perfectly legal, and changing his chemical formulas from time to time to stay ahead of federal regulations, Carlson continued to do a blockbuster business, his store jam-packed from morning to night with happy customers. 
Carlson never hid a thing. He did interviews with TV news crews while his clerks rang up customers in the background. One Christmas Eve, he advertised a two-for-one sale on synthetic marijuana. At the same time, he was careful to label his product with stickers that read, “Not for human consumption”—a cynical way to get around the law. Everybody knew what was going on. People weren’t waiting in line on the sidewalk because they liked the smell of incense.

It was too much for the good people. Police raided The Last Place on Earth twice, forcing customers to the floor at gunpoint, checking their IDs, and confiscating cash, guns, vehicles, and inventory from Carlson. The police held onto everything for a very long time without pressing charges against Carlson, who launched a bid for president and continued to sell synthetic marijuana in the meantime. After a mere 454 days, however, the federal government indicted Carlson on 54 counts of violating federal drug-safety and controlled-substances laws. At trial, a jury found Carlson guilty of “selling misbranded drugs and controlled substance analogues.” In 2014, a judge sentenced Carlson to 17 1/2 years in federal prison.

Carlson’s cash was transferred to government bank accounts, his cars and guns sold, his building seized and auctioned off. Now, four years later, the Duluth police department’s share of those transactions will be used for a classy records management system. Just as The Last Place of Earth once benefited hundreds of satisfied customers with a fine product at a fair price, the Last Place on Earth is now showering benefits on the police department. If only we had a few more businessmen like Jim Carlson in town, everything would be that much better.

No better example

Chief Tusken was particularly proud of a Drug Enforcement Agency task force he was serving on, which allows the DPD to collaborate remotely with federal agents. “It has been a tremendous honor to be the first-ever [police department] that the DEA allowed to have this relationship,” he told the Council.

As a result of the collaboration, the DEA has seen fit to name St. Louis County a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” or HIDTA. According to the DEA’s website, a HIDTA is “a significant center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation, or distribution” that is “having a significant harmful impact in the area.” This designation will allow the Duluth Police Department to access federal money “to do special projects to take on illegal drug trafficking,” according to Tusken.

“I was down in St. Paul at the Minnesota HIDTA meeting … and we got a unanimous vote for our county to be included in that area,” the chief said enthusiastically. “They looked at our report that we sent to them, and they said there wasn’t a better example of a county that really needs the help and the assistance.”