A Sow’s Ear in City Hall

Life, I’ve decided, belongs to those who file. And at no time of the year is that more apparent in our paperwork-riddled society than during the season that is now upon us: tax season.

It’s the time of year that reminds me that I am not one who files.

Much as I would like them to, manila file folders with meticulously-labeled tabs do not miraculously sprout like spring flowers in my home. Alas, instead of files, I have piles. Piles of miscellaneous papers and receipts and nasty little documents of various types, all of which await sorting into enough order to ultimately land the correct numbers on the correct lines of one of those vexatious 1040 tax forms.

But why stress over this now? There are, after all, days and days until April 16! It seems far more entertaining to poke our noses instead into the tasty stuff occurring just around the corner, on the third floor of City Hall.

There can never be
too many good deeds!

On this nearly-spring eve, the Duluth City Council begins with a resolution that would name a training room in the city’s new public-safety building in honor of the late Ellen Pence, who was a lead mover and shaker in founding Duluth’s nationally-recognized domestic abuse program.

“Ellen never gave up on anybody,” Councilor Sharla Gardner says. “And she was a person who could deal with the most hard-nosed institutions, like the U.S. Marines, and win them over.”

The Council votes unanimously to grace this bit of the city with the name of Ellen Louise Pence.

And while on the road of good deeds, the Council votes to accept two gifts totaling $215,000 from the individual estates of Florence Schneider and Christine Crockett. The money was designated by those two generous ladies to be used for Duluth’s public libraries, in part to help people who have vision impairments and other disabilities to use library facilities.

On to the clatter
of Council conflict

Councilors move on then to an issue that’s been clattering at their heels for some weeks now: how to modify the city’s Civil Service system.

This is no small potatoes, since it’s the Civil Service that controls how the city hires and promotes city workers.

The Ness Administration has been hankering to overhaul Duluth’s Civil Service, saying the Ordinance 60 it has proposed would streamline hiring and allow the city to cast its hiring net wider.

Some union members and others, meanwhile, argue the Administration’s proposal would erode the Civil Service Board’s authority to approve hires, leaving the board with only the stripped-down authority to hear appeals. That, they say, would undermine the protections that have kept the city’s hiring process fair.

“Transparency is the hallmark of city government,” Civil Service Board Chair Marsh Stenersen tells the Council, “and the Civil Service Board is the window that provides that transparency. The city’s proposal seeks to pull a shade over that window.”

The public would be “shut out” if the Administration’s proposal is passed, Stenersen warns. “When we review eligibility lists, we ask questions like, ‘Why are there no women on these lists? Why are there no people of color on these lists?’” As things stand now, Stenersen emphasizes, that process happens in the open and in public, and that’s where it should stay.

“The Civil Service system was created in this country to prevent mayors, governors, and others from handing out public jobs like candy in order to accumulate loyalty and power,” Joel Sipress walks to the microphone to say. “Will the day come when a Duluth mayor will abuse this authority to create patronage and cronyism?”

Duluth Police Union President Tom Maida walks to the microphone to urge the Council to work with the Administration toward a better compromise.

 “Will the day come when a Duluth mayor will abuse this authority to create patronage and cronyism?” Joel Sipress  “This is strictly a power play.” Alan Netland

And Duluth Firefighter Union President Erik Simonson warns, “The Administration’s proposal is overreaching, unnecessary, and harmful.”

“The Civil Service Board provides non-political, bi-partisan citizen oversight,” firefighter Peter Johnson tells Councilors. “They make decisions on the merits of the cases and not on how those decisions will affect their reelections.”

“This is strictly a power play,” labor leader Alan Netland steps forward to say. “It’s an end run. The Administration has not gone to the Civil Service Board for an open dialog, and you as Councilors should demand they do so.”

I should mention that a city Task Force has been hashing out the city’s hiring process. Except no Council members or Civil Service Board members were included on it. And few outside the Task Force itself seem to have noticed that the group’s mission was much broader: making recommendations to the Administration on a major overhaul of Civil Service.

Newly-elected Councilor Emily Larson steps into the quagmire, assuring Councilors that despite being one of the new kids on the block, “I do know what’s at stake.”

Larson proposes an amendment to the ordinance that would take some of the sting out by wrenching a bit of the power over approving job descriptions back from the Administration and returning it to the Civil Service Board.  

“Thank you for your efforts in trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Councilor Sharla Gardner says wryly.

Gardner warns then that whatever happens with the votes on the amendment and the ordinance, she will come to the next Council meeting with a new resolution in hand, directing representatives of the Civil Service Board, Council, unions, and Administration to begin discussions over how to effectively update the Civil Service.

By a margin of seven to two, Councilors approve Larson’s amendment (Krause and Stauber No).

And now that Ordinance 60 has been substantially changed, Councilors will have to wait two weeks to vote on it, though they nonetheless take the opportunity tonight to hang their opinions out on the public clothesline.

“As other cities have updated and modernized their hiring to bring in the best and the brightest, I believe our city has fallen behind,” newly-elected Councilor Linda Krug opines. “With this proposal, the Administration keeps protections in place. The members of unions keep protections in place. I wouldn’t say that if I thought the Administration were trying to pull a fast one.”

“If you ask any experienced Councilors, you’ll hear that it’s extremely important for the balance of power to be retained in Duluth,” Councilor Sharla Gardner cautions, glancing in the direction of the Council’s newly-electeds. “A few years ago, I might have said maybe we don’t need the Civil Service. I have come to realize over the years, though, that these are times when employees are in need of protections, and I don’t want to see the protections that are there for people lost.”

Looking like he’s been boiling atop a hot burner until overcooked, Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery grabs his chance at the microphone.

“I take strong exception to the claim there’s been no process or it’s been a bad process,” Montgomery says heatedly. “This has been a poster child of process.”

Montgomery catalogs the people and groups who’ve been involved, the times Task Force findings have been brought before the Council itself. “Did we give in to every request? No. But this has been no ‘end run’ by the Administration as Alan Netland said. And saying we have been trying to pull a shade down over this process is not appropriate. I reject that.”

I keep waiting for Montgomery to end with a “Harrumph!” But he simply turns off his microphone and falls silent.

“I’ve been on this City Council for eleven years,” Councilor Jim Stauber says, leaning back in his chair and smiling just a little. “What worries me is that I agree with Joel Sipress. And what worries me even more is I agree with Alan Netland.”

A flurry of chuckles breaks out in the room at this revelation from the Council’s staunchest conservative.

“I did not say this was about bad process.” Councilor Sharla Gardner steps back in, clearly unwilling to let things pass. “My concern about process is that it did not honor the City Charter.”

There’s some brouhaha then over what the City Charter indeed says on the matter.

“The Charter directs the Civil Service Board and the City Council to meet and make rules and regulations,” Councilor Gardner says, still undeterred. “It tells us we’re supposed to, and we didn’t.”
“If I’d just been hired by the city, I’d find this insulting,” Councilor Jay Fosle comments, on the Administration’s claims that current Civil Service rules have kept the city from hiring the best. “You’re kicking your employees right in the head by saying something like that.”

Two weeks later, Councilors are back at this ordinance, and once more Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery is miffed. As a result, a bit of ruffled-feather-smoothing is under way.

“What worries me is that I agree with Joel Sipress. And what worries me even more is I agree with Alan Netland.” Councilor Jim Stauber

“I would have liked to be part of those Task Force meetings,” Councilor Patrick Boyle is saying. “All I was getting was second-hand information from the Administration and the unions. And the Civil Service Commission was never involved in the process until I asked. No disrespect to you, Mr. Montgomery. I was looking at how the Council could have done better.”

True to her warning, Councilor Gardner has shown up with her new resolution in tow.

“I’m happy Councilor Gardner has brought this forward,” new Council President Dan Hartman says. “It’s something we as a Council should have thought of back in November.”

With this column in danger of running overlong right off the page, here’s the short version of how the night played out:

By a narrow margin of 5 to 4, Councilors approve Ordinance 60, giving the Administration greater powers over Duluth’s Civil Service system and curtailing the Civil Service Board’s authority. (Voting Yes: Julsrud, Krause, Krug, Larson, and Hartman. No: Boyle, Fosle, Gardner, and Stauber.)

But the Council also signals the Administration it’s nowhere near finished with this ordinance, much as the Administration might fervently wish otherwise.

By a unanimous vote, Councilors pass Councilor Gardner’s resolution establishing a Civil Service modernizing work group made up of at least two Councilors, members of the Civil Service Board, the Administration, and representatives of employee unions.

State of the Union
address—an excellent
alternative to those
tax forms!

Monday, March 26 5:00 p.m. Planning Commission appointee interviews, 5:15 p.m. economic development plan, 6:15 p.m. higher education small area plan, 7:00 p.m. Council meeting. Monday, April 2 6:00 p.m. State of the City address (Lake Superior Ballroom, DECC). Thursday, April 5 5:00 p.m. Agenda session. Monday, April 9 5:15 p.m. steam plant, 6:00 p.m. Park Fund projects, 7:00 p.m. Council meeting. Thursday, April 19 5:15 p.m. Agenda Session. Monday, April 23 7:00 p.m. Council meting.

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 February 27 and March 12, 2012 Council meetings.