Look out City Hall… The Newbies Have Arrived!

A Field Guide to Local Politics

It’s a bittersweet moment, when after November’s election and the start of a new year some old faces on the Duluth City Council go away and newly electeds arrive.

So it is tonight, when three new female Councilors take seats at the front of the Council Chambers.

They are At-Large Councilors Linda Krug and Emily Larson and First District Councilor Jennifer Julsrud. Those three join Third District Councilor Sharla Gardener, who’s been reelected for a second term, bringing a balance of females-to-males on the Council for the first time since the 1990s.

Also newly elected is Fourth District Councilor Garry Krause, who served a term on the Council before. And Councilor Jay Fosle is back for a second term.

Here no more, though, is Councilor Tony Cuneo, who decided not to run for reelection. During his term on the Council, Cuneo was well-respected for his dedication to such issues as green transportation. Plus, my teenage daughter thought he was super-cute.

Also gone is Councilor Todd Fedora, defeated in a squeaker election by Jennifer Julsrud. I can’t say I agreed with many of Fedora’s positions, but he was always willing to discuss an issue. Even when as we talked during a break in a Council meeting, I’d inadvertently follow him halfway into the City Hall men’s room.

And what will we do without those characteristic quizzical eyebrows of outgoing Councilor Jeff Anderson?
Anderson—who chose to run instead for the Congressional seat long held by Jim Oberstar and now by right-winger Chip Cravaack—could always be counted on to lighten the Chambers’ mood. Up would go the eyebrows, followed by a portion of Anderson’s dry humor.

So here we are, folks! It’s a brand new year in the Duluth City Council Chambers.

A speedy feat

The night kicks off, as it does each year, with the election of a new Council President and Vice President. In about 14 seconds, Councilor Dan Hartman is elected President for 2012 and Councilor Patrick Boyle Vice President.

It’s a speedy deal because whoever was VP last year usually becomes President this year, while whoever hasn’t yet had a turn gets a chance to become VP. Deed done.

“This past year, we’ve engaged with the community in unprecedented ways... and dealt with the continuing challenges of funding shortages,” outgoing Council President Sharla Gardner says in her farewell as 2011’s Prez.

Gardner lists some of the 2011 Council’s accomplishments, including its leadership in promoting tourism and its action to protect Duluth’s historic Tiffany windows.

“I’m proud of the 2011 Council,” Gardner finishes. “…And I’m confident in the future.” Gardner hands new Council President Dan Hartman the gavel. 

“This next year, I don’t see any shortage of tough, unpopular decisions,” President Hartman begins. Considering the uncertainty of the casino funds that have long paid for city streets, Hartman says, “We don’t know how we’re going to do street repairs. And the average age of the city’s water mains is 80 years… That situation is worse than our streets.” 

In addition, Hartman continues, there’s the effect that cuts in state Local Government Aid to Duluth could have on the city’s budget. “Yet, I believe this City Council will continue to drive to lay the foundation for a new golden age of prosperity to come.” 

From speechifying on to spending

Every December, the Council passes a city budget for the next year. Then in January, they fight it out all over again as they approve individual expenditures and related contracts. 

Thus, tonight is a night of money tussles, starting with a resolution giving Visit Duluth $1.6 million in tourism tax dollars for each of the next three years to promote Duluth as a tourism mecca. The resolution includes a $120,000 budget increase over last year. 

“What were our tax revenues in 2011 from tourism?” Councilor Garry Krause asks, wondering aloud whether “something else is going to have to go away” in the city’s budget to make up for the additional money given to Visit Duluth. 

It’s not, Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery replies. The city’s tourism tax fund “held up amazingly well all the way through 2011.” Duluth expects to collect about $7.5 million in the coming year in tourism taxes.

Councilors pass the Visit Duluth expenditure without further brouhaha and move on.

Now that former Councilor Todd Fedora is gone, the next resolution for $20,000 in funding for Duluth’s Sister Cities organization is considered without acrimony. 

(Sister Cities, as you might know, promotes cultural understanding and international peace. And other such insubstantial stuff.)

Perhaps Fedora thought Councilor Gardner ought to have paddled to Japan on a rubber raft, an English-Japanese phrasebook gripped in her teeth.

Awhile back, Councilor Fedora laid into Councilor Sharla Gardner something fierce over Sister Cities. His bellyache concerned the money Sister Cities spent to help pay for Gardner’s airfare to the Japanese Sister City of Ohara, as Duluth’s representative and delegation leader. Perhaps Fedora thought Councilor Gardner, who paid for the bulk of her trip, ought to have paddled to Japan on a rubber raft, an English-Japanese phrasebook gripped in her teeth.

In any case, tonight’s $20,000 request is well below the $60,000 Sister Cities used to receive, before the Council asked the organization to become more financially independent. 

Duluth Sister Cities President Irina Haller tells Councilors that in 2006, the Twin Ports participated in a national survey that showed Duluth did very well on what’s termed “social capital.” People here tend to be involved in local politics, for example, as well as community activities and school sports.

“Where we didn’t do well,” Haller tells Councilors, “is when we attempted to communicate with individuals different from us. And that’s what Sisters Cities brings to the table.”

“I support the Sister Cities concept,” Councilor Garry Krause grouses. “But like the Great Lakes Aquarium, Sister Cities is still here asking for funding.”

“We still have government involvement in Duluth Sister Cities,” Councilor Sharla Gardner counters, “so it’s appropriate for us to be funding it.”

And with that, Councilors vote 7 to 2 to approve the Sister Cities resolution (Fosle and Krause, No).

Money, money, money!

I’m feeling green as a dollar bill, what with this plethora of money talk. And we’re thick in it yet again as the Council debates the $300,000 budgeted in 2012 for the Great Lakes Aquarium (GLA). 

“The Aquarium brings in more than 100,000 people a year,” Dennis Lamkin of the GLA board tells the Council. “People who go to it stay at hotels. They go to restaurants. The GLA is responsible for generating that revenue.”

Speakers point out as well the Aquarium has returned to its original educational mission, after its unfortunate meander some years ago into that tacky territory as a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not attraction. 

“Last year 10,000 students went through the Aquarium,” GLA Executive Director Jack LaVoy explains. And of the $1.5 million the GLA leverages in earnings from the city’s $300,000, LaVoy remarks, “That’s a 5-to-1 return on investment.”

“Today, for the many local students who go to the GLA, the single most important factor is Lake Superior,” Councilor Patrick Boyle remarks. “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of the students’ role as the next gatekeepers of that economic jewel.”

“I was one of the naysayers,” Councilor Jay Fosle concurs. “And now they’ve turned it around to be an educational experience.” 

By a margin of 8 to 1, Councilors okay the GLA’s $300,000, to be paid from the city’s tourism tax fund (Krause voting No). 

Councilors also vote in favor of paying the Great Lakes Aquarium’s $129,000 in overdue water, natural gas, and steam utility bills, left dangling back in 2008 by good ol’ Ripley’s. With that debt still sitting on the GLA’s books, it’s been nigh onto impossible to acquire grants and other outside funding for the GLA’s ambitious projects.

“I do know grant-writing,” new Councilor Emily Larson says. “The liability of that debt is significant.”

And as new Councilor Jennifer Julsrud steps in to remind us, “We are paying ourselves with the money,” since the funds will be paid to Duluth’s Comfort Systems and the Duluth Steam Cooperative.

By a vote of 8 to 1, the Council approves the expenditure (Krause, No).

The dollar-sign theme continues as the Council unanimously approves $30,000 out of tourism tax dollars, for the Duluth Public Arts Fund. “Public art is something we can all share and reflects the values of our community,” Councilor Sharla Gardner says.

Then it’s on to handing over $30,000 from the tourism tax fund to pay for Duluth’s seat at the table of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, which is working to bring Amtrak train service to the Twin Ports. 

“Ninety percent of all new jobs in the state are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area,” alliance member Ken Buehler tells the Councilors, with the remaining ten percent shared by everyone else. “We must link Duluth to that strong economic engine.”

“The Alliance has produced nothing,” Councilor Jay Fosle grumbles, saying the money would be better spent elsewhere.

“It’s good public transportation,” Councilor Linda Krug counters. “And sometimes we have to wait a little bit of time before we see things come to fruition.”

“America is convenience-driven,” Councilor Garry Krause argues, saying the 2-hour-and-40-minute trip won’t be fast enough to satisfy a car-happy society.

“I’ll go to St. Paul more often if I don’t have to drive,” Councilor Sharla Gardner shoots back, “and I’ll be able to work while traveling… We need to be less dependent on oil and fossil fuels and more green, and the train is a really positive part of that.”

“Rochester is pushing very hard to get rail… and St. Cloud almost has a line to them,” Council President Dan Hartman says as a vote nears. “If we don’t support this, we’ll be the city left out of the grid.”

By a narrow margin of 5 to 4, the Council okays handing Duluth’s $30,000 over to the alliance. (Yes: Boyle, Gardner, Hartman, Krug, and Larson. No: Fosle, Julsrud, Krause, and Stauber.)

As I run out of space and the Council runs out of time, I’ll squeeze in a mention of the $45,000 Councilors approve to pay for an outside law firm to help the city negotiate union contracts. 

“For Councilors to hire outside legal help is a very new thing,” Councilor Jim Stauber says, taking issue as well with hiring a Twin Cities law firm rather than a local firm.

By a vote of 7 to 2, however, the Council approves the contract (Gardner and Stauber, No). 

The Council also gives Spirit Mountain the go-ahead to build a new chalet at the bottom of the mountain and replace its largest lift. To do so, the Council unanimously approves nearly $7 million in bonds, to be paid back out of tourism tax funds and the mountain’s operating revenue.

And with 2012 marching onward, Councilors call it a night.

Keeping an eye on 2012!

Monday, January 30, 7:00 p.m. City Council meeting. Thursday, February 9, 5:15 p.m. special Council meeting on bond sale for Spirit Mountain and 5:30 p.m. Agenda Session. Monday, February 13, 7:00 p.m. Council meeting.

Third floor, City Hall. PACT-TV, Channel 7. KUMD radio, 103.3 FM.


Barb Olsen writes about the Duluth City Council every month. This column is based on the January 17, 2012 Council meeting.