Through the Bitter and the Sweet... a Thirteen-Year City Hall Ride

It was the fall of 1999 when I walked into the Duluth City Council Chambers that first time. I did it with trepidation, feeling like an interloper who’d wandered uninvited into a stranger’s family picnic, hoping to heist a hot dog and a beer before anyone noticed.

The Chambers, though lovely in that grandiose way of granite-encased buildings of the era, was a tad intimidating.

Chandeliers glittered overhead. Then-Mayor Gary Doty and his cadre sat in sumptuous chairs, tapping their pens and looking like men who had better things to do and were aggrieved they weren’t out doing them. At the front of the room, nine councilors perched along an elevated dais, separated from the public benches on which I sat by a solid wooden gate.

I had come to watch a councilor whose campaign I was volunteering for—as well as to see for myself what city councilors actually did and how their actions squared with the public. To my surprise, only a few members of the public were there.

A number of folks that night had come to speak against a controversial development proposed for construction near their homes, a sizeable structure they feared would change the character of their neighborhood irrevocably.


Then-Mayor Doty and his cadre sat tapping their pens, looking like men who had better things to do.

Even as they spoke their hearts out, however, I was flummoxed to see two councilors leaning their heads together to chat, yammering and grinning like magpies. A couple more councilors held a cozy confab at the coffee pot.

“What the heck?!” I grumbled to myself.
Two weeks later, I was back in the Chambers for the next City Council meeting. And then two weeks after that for another, lured by these real-life stories and the people who came to tell them.

They were stories left often untold in the daily newspaper, on local radio stations*, on hometown television news—and apparently ignored as well by some on the Council and in the mayor’s administration.

(*Except, I feel compelled to mention, on the much-missed “Duke Skorich and Patty McNulty Radio Show” on KUWS-FM.)

And so I decided back in 1999 I’d tell the stories myself, here on the pages of the Reader. I figured I’d give it a go for a year or two. But when the stories are so poignant, the characters who figure in them so compelling, heavens but thirteen years can get by a person fast.

The intrepid “Tree Lady”
and the Ten

There was, for instance, the decade-long debate in the Council over the proposal to cut down the Spirit Mountain old-growth forest to make way for a golf course.

It was a debate that seemed destined to stretch into eternity, with developer Kent Oliver looking every bit the garroted salmon each time Duluth’s “Tree Lady” Nancy Nelson stood at the Chambers microphone to calmly and intrepidly dispute Oliver’s every claim. Today, the old-growth forest still stands.


She clamped her hand over her mouth, remembering we were in the Council Chambers, where such fisticuffs do not commonly break out.

And never was a City Council meeting more likely to run hours overtime, leaving our hinders numb and nearly affixed to the benches, than during those years when the city’s Ten Commandments monument was on the Council’s agenda.

The monument sat on Duluth’s City Hall lawn for 47 years, setting the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union’s teeth on edge over issues of separation of church and state—and eventually prompting the MCLU to file suit. In 2004, the Duluth City Council voted 5 to 4 to remove the monument.

Today, the Ten Commandments stone sits unobtrusively near the waterfront in Canal Park, where it still exhorts us to do good and not covet and all—but does so from its perch on non-public space.

“Oh, Joe!”

A fellow had just lit up a protest cigarette in the Council Chambers, more than 10 years ago now, when Duluthian Joe Vekich leapt from the public bench and set about to wrestle the man’s cigarette away.

“Oh, Joe!” Joe’s wife Joanne shouted. Then she clamped her hand over her mouth, remembering, I suppose, that we were in the regal Council Chambers, where such fisticuffs and public displays do not commonly break out (but are greatly enjoyed when they do).  

The cigarette light-up was in protest of another King Kong-sized Council controversy, the proposed smoke-free ordinance to ban smoking in Duluth’s restaurants and bars.

The City Council eventually passed it, the ordinance never did cause the demise of Duluth’s restaurant and bar business as some wailed it would, and Duluth made history as the first city in Minnesota to ban smoking in public places.

Today, the Duluth City Council is making its way still farther down that road by working to ban smoking along Duluth’s waterfront and in its parks.

No such thing
as “small stuff”

Then there were the less monumental issues, the kind that are seen as small stuff—but only if they’re not happening to you. For instance, if city sewage is regularly flooding your home.

Such was the plight many years ago of Morgan Park resident Debbie Isabell-Nelson, who was trying to run a daycare business out of her house. It was a business that, as you might imagine, didn’t gel well with raw sewage.

After years of working to convince the city it really was their sewer lines causing the problem, Isabell-Nelson had cut her teeth well and good on city politics and was ready for more. These days, she’s making a bid to be elected the next Third-District St. Louis county commissioner.

Which goes to show you that even inside a busted sewer line, there can be a silver lining.

And the list goes on…

We’ve seen short-sighted attempts to fix budget shortfalls by selling city assets like Duluth’s historic Tiffany windows or its steam plant. A decade of battles over funding the Great Lakes Aquarium. Heartache over the Mayor Doty years of street repairs, in which stately boulevard trees were chain-sawed down in the name of street uniformity. Councilors tying themselves in knots to get the Lakewalk extended. Breaking the Congdon Trust to snatch land for McQuade Harbor. Deep cuts in city library and parks funding, later to be reinstated by the voters.

And let’s not forget homelessness and housing initiatives, proposals for gargantuan hotels, wrath over the school district’s half-billion-dollar “Red Plan,” the university district rental ordinance, and city employee contract talks. If we tried to remember it all, we’d be here a month.

Through the years, new councilors arrived and outgoing councilors left. Sometimes their departures followed the misery of a lost reelection bid. But even for those who left voluntarily, there was a whiff of the bittersweet as they stepped away from the Council camaraderie and headaches and limelight, and back into private life.

A dash of bitter,
a boatload of sweet

It’s with a sense of the bittersweet as well that I make this my last “Out of Order!” column.

Many times over the years, it was a midnight dash out into the winter night to dig a near-frozen remnant of a deli sandwich out of my car that, until I could finish my column that night, sustained me.

As did Butch The Couch Dog, the family canine who appeared early on in these pages until he moved to a farm where he could roam free over many acres, chase cats mercilessly, and lick the meringue off the top of freshly baked pies with impunity.

I’ve been blessed as well by my two wonderful children, who in years past used to lie in the aisle in the Council Chambers to do their homework while I took notes on the Council meeting. They’ve grown up now and have become my two most trusted and skilled column editors.

I thank my parents, Juanita and Joel, who from the beginning videotaped every City Council meeting for me. My dad has passed on, but until just recently my mom has kept up the effort. His and Mom’s handwriting are still there on the hundreds of City Council videotapes I’ve wedged into my closets.

Thanks to the Reader staff and to Bob Boone, publisher of the Reader, an admirably stubborn man who’s kept the Reader whirring all these years when others in the business have faded away. And, who along with then-editor Richard Thomas, said yes to my initial column proposal.

Thank you as well to the many city councilors who took time over the years to answer my questions and provide perspective, even when the hour was late. I would love to mention them all—and as they always say, you know who you are. But in this small space, I give special thanks to Councilors Russ Stewart, Greg Gilbert, Sharla Gardner, Gary Eckenberg, Todd Fedora, Jeff Anderson, Russ Stover, Laurie Johnson, and Tony Cuneo.

And thanks to you, Reader readers, for joining in this journey—and for caring about the people and the issues in these tales. I’ve been tickled by your letters and emails and charmed by your comments as we pass on the street.

A final thank you goes to the hundreds of members of the public whom I’ve watched make that trek to the microphone in the Council Chambers, even when it was downright petrifying for them. Your words mattered. You made a huge difference.

Now here’s what we all can do:

Go to Council meetings, and speak on the issues. Write letters to the editor. Call the newspaper, radio, and television news folks about City Council issues and their coverage of them. Call the councilors—whether you live in their district or not—to fill them in on your opinions on city issues and to ask for (and demand!) their support.  

Meanwhile, I’ll be moving on to another writing project: It’s a book about a mid-size city, its people, and the row of sometimes exasperating but always intriguing people elected to sit at the front of an ornate room and make decisions that affect lives. And as well about a certain columnist who tells their stories.

Sound familiar?

Stay tuned.

In person, on TV, or on
the radio—it’s all good

Monday, September 24, 5:15 p.m. committee meeting on street reconstruction and 7:00 p.m. City Council meeting. Monday, October 1, 5:15 p.m. committee meeting on street reconstruction (Room 303). Thursday, October 4, 5:15 p.m. agenda session. Monday, October 8, 7:00 p.m. Council meeting.

Third floor City Hall. PACT-TV, Channel 7. KUMD radio, 103.3 FM.
Barb Olsen for 13 years wrote about the Duluth City Council. This column is based on those 13 years—and the years yet to come.