To sell a project: the City Hall emails

In June of 2014, the Duluth city council approved a contract with the Minneapolis consulting firm of Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle to do a study of the Duluth Public Library and develop ideas for its future. To assist them in their work, a Citizens Steering Committee was formed, composed of city staff, library staff and citizens.
At the library’s board meeting of October 28, 2014, Library Manager Carla Powers announced that the Citizens Steering Committee would be meeting soon to evaluate and discuss the work that was being done on the facilities plan.
On October 29, I emailed Powers, asking for the date and location of the Citizens Steering Committee meeting. She emailed me back, saying that the meeting would be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, November 4, in the library’s Gold Room.
“You are definitely welcome to attend as an observer if you’d like,” Powers wrote, but added that there would be no opportunity for public comment.
On November 4, the day of the meeting, at 12:40 p.m., I received a call from Daniel Fanning, the city’s director of communications. Fanning said that he had been informed by Carla Powers that I wanted to attend the Citizens Steering Committee meeting, and he was sorry, but the meeting wasn’t open to the public. He was calling to save me the trouble of going down there when I didn’t have to.
“I don’t want you to waste your time,” he said considerately.
When I inquired (yelled, maybe) why Fanning thought the meeting wasn’t open to the public, he said that he had been informed of that fact by the city attorney.
“Well, why are you calling me, then?” I asked snottily. I told him that I would need the names and phone numbers of all the people attending the meeting, for my complaint to the state’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD), which watch-dogs compliance with open meeting laws. Fanning said he did not have that information. I hung up.
At 1:02 p.m., I received a call from Jim Filby Williams, the city’s Director of Public Administration—one of the mayor’s top managers, and a member of the library Citizens Steering Committee. Filby Williams informed me that the library planned to have a big public open house later in the month to unveil four different options for the library’s future, and I was welcome to attend that meeting. Today, however, it was feared that the presence of the media might “compromise” some of the goals they were trying to achieve.
I yelled that none of that mattered, because it was an open meeting. Under the state’s Open Meeting statutes, you can only close public meetings for very specific purposes (for example, to discuss personnel issues or ongoing litigation) and the reasons for closing a meeting must be clearly stated beforehand. I demanded the names and phone numbers of everyone attending the meeting, for my complaint to IPAD. Filby Williams declined to provide me with that information. I said, “Thanks a lot,” and hung up on him in mid-sentence.
At 1:55 p.m., Filby Williams called me back. He informed me that the Citizens Steering Committee meeting had been canceled, and that all decisions relating to the library facilities plan would now be made “administratively”—and, as such, they would not be subject to open meeting laws. I just laughed through most of this conversation. The absurdity of being stonewalled by the library—you know, the place that safeguards the public’s access to information in a free society—was striking my funny bone.
If all decisions relating to the plan were now to be made administratively, what was the point of having a Citizens Steering Committee? When I asked this question, Filby Williams informed me that the Citizens Steering Committee would be the group that unveiled the options for the library later in the month. So they were figureheads. City planners and consultants would tell them what to say, and they would say it.
 I said goodbye and hung up.
By the time I found my way to my desk the following day, it was afternoon. Everything was blinking—the message light on my house phone, the message light on my cell phone, the “New Email” alert on the computer. The messages were from Mr. Filby Williams, asking me to please call him back.
When I called, he apologized for his “ham-handed” handling of the situation the day before. The reason they had wanted to close the meeting, he explained, was because they had been planning to discuss possible sites for a new library, and they were worried that if this information got out, certain landowners might use it as an excuse to raise the selling prices of their property, which would cost the city more money. Upon further reflection, however, they had decided that any discussion of possible future sites was “completely premature,” since the consultants hadn’t even made any recommendations yet.
All meetings of the Citizens Steering Committee would be open to the public, he went on, and he urged me to attend the next one, which was scheduled for November 12.
Naturally, I was pleased to hear this. I agreed that discussion of possible future sites would be premature. City staff had said from the beginning that they didn’t have any preconceived ideas about relocating the library; rather, they said, they wanted to wait until the consultants had issued their report, and the Steering Committee had made its recommendation, before making any decision.
When I went to the November 12 meeting, reporter Peter Passi from the Duluth News Tribune was also there. The meeting lasted about two hours. The consultants and city staff didn’t say a word about possible future sites.
On Sunday, November 16, a front-page story by Passi appeared in the News Tribune. Headlined “Report: Duluth library needs major renovations, or replacement,” the story described issues that have by now become familiar: the years of deferred maintenance at the library, the claims of energy loss, the layout that is supposedly so unsuitable for modern library needs.
Jim Filby Williams was quoted in the story. “The study showed us that several heretofore low-visibility problems at the library will quite soon become glaring problems that will need to be addressed.”
Carla Powers said, “We’ve got a lot of space for books but not a lot of space for people in this building.”
City councilor (and soon-to-be mayoral candidate) Emily Larson said, “Now that we know that, we have to do something about it. We just do.”
The story outlined four options developed by the consultants. Two options involved varying degrees of renovation to the existing library, and two discussed building a new library. It was clear which option Councilor Larson preferred. “To me it doesn’t make sense that you would dress something up to look good while it’s still operating poorly,” she said. “That is not being a good steward of the bigger picture.”
This was the first story about the library’s future to appear in the media. I took satisfaction in the fact that I was responsible. If I hadn’t made a fuss, the public wouldn’t have seen a story until much later. It was a triumph of transparency.

The spin cycle

There’s more to the story. There always is. Recently The Reader came into possession of internal City Hall emails talking about the library project. The tale they tell is a little different from the public version.
The first item was an email from Library Manager Carla Powers to Mayor Don Ness, dated October 16, 2014.

“Mayor, thanks again for taking the time to meet with the MSR consultants and me on Tuesday,” Powers wrote. “We are making great progress, and I am so impressed with everyone’s shared vision for the project. I have a question regarding how to move forward with the next Citizen Steering Committee meeting, which is scheduled for Nov. 4.”

November 4 sounded familiar. She was talking about the meeting they wound up canceling on me. The email went on:

Traci and Steve are preparing to lay out several options (minor remodeling, major remodeling, new construction, branch enhancement) for the citizen committee to consider and ultimately make a recommendation on. The question is how much detail to share regarding a potential location for new construction. Steve and Traci said the location we talked about on Tuesday is a fairly standard size, and one approach would be to discuss a new downtown facility in the abstract, without getting into where it would be. However, this kind of sells the project short because it doesn’t allow them to highlight the views of the lake and the connection with the Lakewalk—two things that make a new building in this location so compelling. If you could give some thought to how this should be handled and let me know, I would appreciate it. Thank you!

This email contradicted what the administration had been saying publicly: that they had no preconceived ideas regarding the library’s future. Clearly, they were talking about a specific location for a new library somewhere downtown—which meant that they had already decided that they wanted to abandon the existing library. Moreover, the mayor was actively collaborating with the consultants and library staff to determine the best way to sell the new location to the Steering Committee.
Mayor Ness responded to Powers the same day. “I would be comfortable with you sharing this particular idea with the group—with the understanding that it is absolutely confidential and talking about it publicly could complicate the possibility going forward. Thanks.”

On November 5, the day after my showdown with the city, Jim Filby Williams emailed the mayor:

I spoke with Daniel, Carla, and Keith yesterday evening. Our sense at that time was that the best course at this point is to go back to the original plan—bring MSR back to conduct the meeting as originally planned (i.e. without site-identifying information and, l would suggest, estimated capital costs) and notify John Ramos (and potentially others) that they are welcome to attend the meeting. lf this is the chosen course, Daniel and l would contact John Ramos today and explain that we have rescheduled and restructured the meeting to omit premature details that, if published now, might compromise the community’s ability to pursue all options down the road.
Whichever direction we choose to go here, it is very important that we come to a speedy decision this morning so that we can promptly contact committee members before John Ramos fulfills his stated intention to contact, and likely alarm, each of them individually.

Daniel Fanning’s response to Filby Williams was hilarious:

I just met with the Mayor and we’re all on the same page. Let’s make sure the meeting focuses on the current site—omitting all details of the other options at this time, just focused on the current location. Let’s do the same with the information we give to Peter Passi (Keith and l will work on that piece, and then hand it off to Carla). Our focus should be on the current location, which can include the proposed costs. The message is that we are looking into the current location and the feasibility and cost/benefit of going that route. lf questions are asked about other locations, our message is that we’re taking it one step at a time at this point.
I still think we should reach out to John Ramos and (A) let him know the meeting has been rescheduled and (B) offer to sit down with him (without giving him any details, of course) just so he’s not tempted to write some piece blasting the city’s lack of transparency - which is possible either way. I also think we get to Peter Passi first and let him do a larger, broad piece (focused on the current location) and get that out prior to whatever John puts out, so the narrative is already set.

It’s hard to describe the joy I felt reading this. It was like digging up buried treasure in my backyard—I always suspected it was there, but seeing it made all the difference.
The mayor himself weighed in an hour later, suggesting ways that city staff might subtly guide the Steering Committee toward the favored conclusion.
The key at this point is to focus all of our attention ONLY on the current building options.
As far as I am concerned—we can be fully transparent about those options, including the costs. We frame this up as considering options to make the current building a viable space for the next 30 years.
There will be negative reaction to those options and there will be sticker shock. That’s OK. But the other message needs to be—”doing nothing is not an option” and give the reasons for that.
This conversation will lead to the natural question of “what are our other options?” The consultants can say that they are working with the administration on exploring other potential options, which will be presented publicly after discussions with other key stakeholders.

So which “potential option” was it that the mayor was being so careful not to mention? The answer first appeared in an email dated December 19, 2014, which City Planner Keith Hamre sent to the consultants:

Stephen & Traci,
Would you please send me a PDF of the “Muffler Clinic” site sketches that you’ve shown the Mayor? He would like to use those for a discussion with the property owner.
The old Muffler Clinic site, near First Avenue East and Superior Street, is owned by A & L Properties, developers of many high-profile projects in Duluth, including the Technology Village, the Wieland Block office building, and St. Luke’s Lakewalk Clinic, among others.

Five weeks before the consultants presented their report to the city council, and seven weeks before the Steering Committee made its official recommendation, Mayor Ness was hunkered down with Rob Link, owner of A & L, plotting to build a new library.
As the date approached for the consultants to deliver their report, the spinning and coaching continued. On January 23, 2015, Jim Filby Williams sent an email to the consultants.

One of the most important arguments against renovation, and particularly partial renovation, is that, even if entirely renewed, the basic skeleton of the building is terribly ill-suited to support high quality contemporary library services. You make the generic structural deficiencies of the current building very clear. It is important to be equally clear, earlier in the document, about the basic incompatibility of the building skeleton with operating an outstanding contemporary library.
Otherwise, the report is excellent.

State of the City

The mayor didn’t keep his secret forever. On March 2, 2015, in his State of the City Address, he unveiled the idea of building a new library on the old Muffler Clinic site.
“I want to stress that this is just kind of my perspective on what could be possible, and I know that a longer-term community discussion is needed,” said the mayor, not mentioning the months he had already spent pushing his perspective behind the scenes.

Mayor Ness: Here’s the potential of that site: two levels of parking, about 150 spots, off the Michigan Street level; four-story library system, a modern library that meets the modern interests of library-goers, with the technology and the public spaces. Imagine, from the fourth floor of that new library building, the spectacular views of Lake Superior. Imagine taking a book from the library and going right outside into Lake Place Park, currently under-utilized, and sitting on the bench and overlooking the greatest of the Great Lakes. Imagine children’s programming, instead of being down off of Michigan Street in this kind of damp concrete jungle, to be able to step out into Lake Place Park, smell the fresh lake breeze, and to fully experience it and appreciate what we have to offer.

It sounded good. Really good. Undoubtedly, Rob Link thought so, too.

Questions for discussion

• If the city pushes an agenda while preserving the fiction that they’re not pushing an agenda, how are we supposed to know what is real?

• If consultants work behind the scenes to promote that agenda, how can we be confident that their report is objective?

• Why are we paying consultants to promote hidden agendas?

• What is the Mayor’s plan for the current library location?

• If the city can get stories into the News Tribune and “set the narrative” simply by picking up the phone, how can we trust those stories?

• If you want your own story in the News Tribune, will they print it as soon as you call or should you give them a few days’ notice?

Steering the Steering Committee

by Robert Boone
 Upon reading this week’s cover story, it’s possible that people will be dismayed at the Machiavellian maneuverings of Mayor Ness’s administration as to the future of Duluth’s
downtown library.  While it is fair to be concerned, a greater benefit might be garnered by considering that this is really just BUSINESS AS USUAL. It may well be that Ness’s vision
for the library is a brilliant one. It may well be that pesky journalists will just impede progress.  It may only be an unfortunate coincidence that the city stopped maintaining the
building long ago.
   When people say that building a brand-new library will cost only $4 million more than fixing up the existing library, doesn’t that sound like an awesome deal? Can we believe
it’s a coincidence that those two numbers came in so close together? The truth is government bodies,  corporations, nonprofits and citizen committees everywhere  engage in
similar behavior. Often, they have the best of intentions. Often they get more done by not letting the uninformed public slow them down.
On the other hand...

How about that Red Plan?
A few years ago Independent School District 709 decided to embark on a renovation program. After all, the School District had “too much capacity” and we needed to shed some deadweight. They offered the good residents of Duluth three COMPLETELY DIFFERENT options as to how to best restore the School District.   The Red Plan for $437 million, the White Plan for about $400 million,  and the Blue Plan for about $400 million. Very patriotic. What Keith Dixon,  Johnston Controls Inc (JCI) and cronies were doing was “setting the narrative”.  Obviously,  it was necessary for Duluth to spend at least $400 million under any circumstance. Then magic would happen. They knew best, so they crawled through a loophole to avoid letting the public vote. The rest, as they say, is history. The savings have vanished, the classrooms are overcrowded and there is no end in sight.
They never offered the public an Orange Plan. One where $200 million could be spent, renovating and closing schools. Being brilliant, Dixon and cronies knew best. Except, somehow, they never contemplated anyone attempting to fill the void left by closing “old” new Central High School. The new, centrally located Edison high school is likely to pull another 800-1000 students out of ISD 709, taking with them even more revenue.  Whether Edison schools should be allowed to draw public funds at the expense of school districts is a question for another day.

How about that Zoo?
The same behind the scenes orchestration that we are now witnessing at the public library is certainly also occurring at the Lake Superior Zoo.  The Zoo has struggled since the 2012 flood disaster. The Ness Administration called for an “independent” consultant to evaluate the best solution. Two consulting firms, Consult Econ and HGKi, were brought in to assist with the decisions. The Administration certainly does not have any preconceived ideas as to the Zoo, and obviously the consultants should be allowed to do their work. Reportedly, however, the consultants initial conclusions didn’t quite meet Ness’s non-expectations and he has expressed that he’d like to keep his options open on the matter.  Translation: the “independent” consultants conclusions now more accurately reflect the desires of the Administration that writes the check.

The point is, no one has a lock on wisdom; it is all of our responsibility to question authority.

City has long history of sweetheart deals with A & L.

by Robert Boone


A & L Properties, a partnership of Lee Anderson and Rob Link, has been one of Duluth’s most prolific commercial construction companies and landlords for the last 20 years. A & L built the Technology Village, Wieland Block, St. Luke’s Lakewalk Clinic and many other properties.  A & L has historically had the benefit of preferred treatment by the City of Duluth, most notably during Mayor Gary Doty’s administration.

The Phoenix Building burned at the corner of 4th Avenue West and Superior Street in December of 1994. When the owners failed to raze the building,  the city stepped in, (concerned about having an eyesore downtown) demolished the burned out shell, and built a new building (now Starbucks) at a cost of $3.2 million. Later, The Reader revealed that the city then turned around and sold it to A & L for $267,000;  without offering the property to anyone else.

October 15, 1998, The Reader reported
that Assistant City Attorney Cynthia
Albright helped try to cover-up the
 illegal demolition of historic buildings
(in violation of court orders) during
construction of the Technology
Village (then Soft Center).

March 16, 2000, a Reader investigation
documented seven newsworthy stories regarding A & L’s  
construction of the Technology Village (including illegal
demolition above), bid rigging (also involving the city) and
more. We were able to prove that the Duluth News Tribune
knew about four of them, and chose not to cover them.
Coincidentally DNT Publisher, Mary Jacobus, was married to
A & L marketing director and leasing agent, Dean Jacobus.
When The Reader asked Publisher Jacobus about her conflicts
of interest she brushed the questions aside. We then asked
The Columbia School of Journalism, the Society of Professional
Journalists, and Knight Ridder, all of whom were rather
unimpressed. Knight Ridder quickly transferred Jacobus out
of town.

Shortly thereafter, the Electric Fetus began planning a
remodeling facelift. They were disappointed to discover that
the City of Duluth would not allow them to utilize the
storefront remodeling loan program.  City planner,
Mike Conlan, arrogantly explained that Duluth would rather
have A & L buy their building so it could connect with the
future Wieland Block development.  The Electric Fetus went
ahead without city help; and John Ramos castigated Conlan’s
performance in the January 11, 2001 Reader.