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Five years ago I was up on the Bayfront stage being introduced to the public as a staff writer for the Reader at a show I had helped set up for the paper’s fifteenth birthday. I’ll say from that moment coming up on this show for the twentieth birthday, there has been a lot of little changes and bits of growth. Some new people are on and some people have gone, I’m still doing this because it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything different at this point in time.
Top Stories: Beating the SWAT team to their own raid
by Paul Whyte
April 14, 2013
On the afternoon of Friday, March 29, 2013 we received a tip that there would a third raid on The Last Place On Earth. LPOE had been selling products which were being declared illegal by Federal and State laws. Due to the manner in which the laws were evolving regarding the sale of synthetic substances, there was considerable confusion as to what products were in fact illegal. When we arrived at the head shop, there weren’t any police, so we waited. After a few minutes passed, squad cars and officers from various agencies descended upon LPOE and arrested Carlson and his son once again; after they had pled not guilty to violating Federal drug and product labeling laws in December, 2012.
The police, unaware of our identity, began detaining people at random in front of us and upon realizing that we were there for a story and monitoring, they let a few people go. “They’re still selling illegal drugs,” said Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay when he arrived on scene.
In the story, we referenced a prior interview with Ramsay where we discovered that the packages that Last Place received came with a certification from a biotech lab that stated that the producst had been tested for over 50 controlled substances, none of which were detected. Ramsay dismissed the certification issue and said it was probably bogus. We checked and found that the certifications were in fact legitimate.
In June, 2013, veteran graphic designer from the Duluth New Tribune, Ted Heinonen, began working to take over for Corey Johnsen. The two graphic designers revamped the paper to go from 88 to 96 pages. Heinonen is a local musician and photographer and also occasionally writes arts and business columns. At four years in, Heinonen has been able to adapt to the non-stop grind of running a paper. Especially a paper that keeps growing.
Top Stories: The Strange Case of the Naked Man
By Paul Whyte
January 9, 2014
One of the most bizarre and disturbing stories The Reader has ever seen dealt with the case of Cedric Anderson who was tazered and arrested by the Duluth Police Department. After countless calls and pouring over medical and police records, we found that there were a few things which raised concern. The police had certainly something to do with Anderson’s condition when he had to be intubated and kept for six days at St. Luke’s. The police claimed that he was tazed just once, but then we found medical documents essentially saying that he was tazed multiple times.
We tried to tell both sides of the story, but it seemed that the police were reluctant to be straight forward about the incident, concealing tazer records and manipulating dashcam footage. In the end, Anderson reportedly sued every officer that was present during his tazing and received a settlement. We haven’t heard from him since.
Focus on the School Board
Loren Martell introduced a School District Column in March 2014.
Martell has a very detailed and unapologetic way of dissecting ISD 709 and our School Board, and it’s always interesting. Martell serves the public by asking and answering hard questions, and has a skill for story telling that makes you feel as if you attended the meeting yourself, while also highlighting issues which have been overlooked, or swept under the rug intentionally.
Martell has addressed many issues: failure to sell the closed schools that were promised, the projected increase of student enrollment we never saw, and most of all, the deficits these broken promises have led to. Martell has also offered many logical alternatives and potential solutions to problems in the boardroom, while giving context as to the possible socio-political reasons as why these alternatives are often dismissed out of hand.
Top Stories: “Snow job: How Duluth was sold on Spirit Mountain”
by John Ramos
June 12 & October 2, 2014
For years, the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area enjoyed a reputation as a financially solid operation. In 2014, however, John Ramos published a series of articles exposing Spirit Mountain’s true financial condition. Years of poor weather combined with a years-long building spree had left the ski hill with more infrastructure than it had money to maintain. The ski area was struggling to make payroll from month to month, and a $1.2 million line of credit that the city extended to Spirit Mountain was maxed out.
The news of Spirit Mountain’s poor condition was a big surprise to everyone. People expressed shock and dismay, and wondered how we had fallen so deep into the hole before anyone noticed. The answer was that nobody had ever checked any of Spirit Mountain’s numbers. The local Duluth media were too busy cheering for all the new projects to bother investigating them. A quick glance at the budgets handed out at Spirit Mountain’s board meetings would have revealed troubling details, but no TV station or newspaper ever sent a reporter to cover board meetings. Only John Ramos attended, a situation that persists to the present day.
Today, Spirit Mountain continues to limp on, dealing with unpredictable weather events and a shoestring budget. They continue to receive substantial city assistance. Executive Director Brandy Ream and General Manager Jody Ream have cut costs and expanded revenue opportunities where they can. Unlike in years past, however, it’s all completely transparent.
Scoops: Expose of DEDA president Nancy Norr voting to grant city money to organizations on whose boards she also sits.
by John Ramos
July 24 & Nov. 27, 2014 (not reported elsewhere).
Top Stories: The Super Dispute
by Robert Boone
August 14, 2014
Super One adds liquor store in Superior. Superior bar and liquor store owners weren’t very happy when three City Councilors approved the Superior East End Super One to build a liquor store and lounge. Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen felt that Super One should have honored their word and not put in a liquor store in the new Superior East End Super One plaza and admitted that Super One had not been forthcoming about their intentions in early meetings.
Through a land swap, Super One also acquired land Walter “Pudge” and Sara Haugen owned, so as to optimize the new Super One's layout. Haugen claimed that Super One had promised them that they would not add a liquor store during their negotiations for the land swap. That turned out not to be the case, which in essence meant that he had inadvertently helped create competition for his own establishment, Pudge's Tavern.
After our story broke, the Superior City Council reconsidered; and denied the liquor permit. A year later newly elected city councilors pushed through a new permit for that location.
College Guide Graduates to Annual Manual
September 18, 2014
After over a decade of putting together a college guide The Reader decided to create to something new. We decided to quit treating you like freshman and more like people who might want to know what might be a fun band to see or good place to have a drink with a new friend. We decided to go with the Annual Manual and we also print off extra copies for something to put in your kitchen drawer and pull out when you’re thinking of something to go out and do. Keep an eye out in the early fall for this helpful guide.
Scoops: Chambers Grove Park restoration and rebuild.
by John Ramos
Oct. 16, 2014 and March 19, 2015 (eleven months before other media).
Scoops: Efforts by Park Point citizens to save Pontliana Top Woods.
by John Ramos
May 7, 2015 (four months before other media).
Top Stories: Plot to build a new library
“To sell a project: The City Hall emails”
by John Ramos
June 11 & July 25, 2015
In 2014, the city hired MSR, a Minneapolis consulting firm, to conduct a facility study of the Duluth Public Library and make recommendations for its future. After several months, MSR released a 248-page report that painted a very bleak picture: The aging library was suffering from years of deferred maintenance; all of its major building systems—electrical, mechanical and ventilation—were in need of replacement. MSR listed four options, from basic renovation to a full replacement of the library. According to the report, the price tag for a complete renovation was $31 million, while the cost to build a new library was $35 million. From that point on, the public conversation began to lean toward building a new library. After all, if you could get a new library for only $4 million more, why wouldn’t you?
There was only one problem: The report was not objective information. From the very beginning of the process, MSR had been collaborating with Mayor Don Ness and top city staff behind the scenes to craft a report that guided readers toward a new library. It was no coincidence that the price tags for the top two options were so close together. MSR jacked up the costs of renovation as high as possible, and underestimated the cost of a new building, to accomplish it. In the Reader, John Ramos mined internal City Hall emails to expose the Machiavellian maneuverings of an administration in pursuit of their goal.
In their report, MSR disparaged the existing library for its deteriorated condition, stating many times that the building lost $75,000 each year due to treated air escaping from the building envelope. Using utility bills, however, Ramos demonstrated that the $75,000 was almost entirely due to water costs that came from operating an archaic “pump-and-dump” cooling system. The library consumed millions of gallons of city water annually to cool its air. Simply replacing that obsolete system with something modern would almost entirely eliminate the extra cost. Nowhere in MSR’s report was the cooling system mentioned.
Mayor Ness not only wanted a new library, he knew exactly where he wanted it: on the old Muffler Clinic site downtown, near 1st Avenue East and Superior Street. While the MSR consultants were convening listening sessions and pretending to gather input from citizens, the Ness Administration was ordering site sketches for a new library downtown.
The Reader itself became a part of this story. When city staff became worried that John Ramos’s reporting would derail their plans, they schemed among themselves via email to get their own story into the Duluth News Tribune ahead of Ramos’s story “so the narrative is already set.” Three days after they hatched their plot, the story appeared in the DNT just as the city wanted it.
In May of 2015, Mayor Ness unexpectedly called a time-out on the library planning process, saying he wanted to give citizens more time to consider the matter. He did not mention the Reader as a factor in his decision, nor did any other media outlets acknowledge the Reader’s reporting. Nevertheless, the idea of a new library faded away, and to date has not returned.
Scoops: Expose of the mayor manipulating the city’s process for naming public assets for his own political ends.
by John Ramos
Sept. 10, 2015 (not reported elsewhere).
Top Stories: “The mayor vs. the zoo”
by John Ramos
October 8, 2015
The library wasn’t the only thing the Ness Administration wanted to get rid of; they had their sights on the Lake Superior Zoo as well. The zoo had been severely damaged in the historic flood of 2012, losing its signature polar bear exhibit, which contributed to an ongoing drop in attendance. With their future in jeopardy, the zoo turned to the city for help. At first, the mayor expressed his support, but that soon changed. When John Ramos examined internal City Hall emails from 2014 and 2015, he found an administration actively calculating (in private) how to shut down the zoo and convert the grounds into a new city park.
Two consultants’ reports related to the zoo were produced. The first report, from 2014, suggested a path forward where the zoo might survive. For six months, Mayor Ness declined to make that report public. Instead, he ordered another report from another consultant that talked about closing the zoo down. He also halted more than half a million dollars’ in state and federal grants that the zoo had been about to receive.
After more than a year of internal deliberation, the city administration dumped a mountain of information on the city council all at once and asked them to close the zoo. The council, unhappy at being asked to make such a big decision at the last minute, requested another committee meeting. At that meeting, in June of 2015, the administration’s vision mellowed for the first time. They indicated that they would be willing to negotiate with the zoo rather than close it down.
Today, the zoo continues to face financial difficulties. But it still exists.
Top Stories: Enbridge Arrests
By Paul Whyte.
November 2, 2015
The Reader was present for a mass arrest involving a protest against the Enbridge pipelines in November, 2015. Approximately 70 to 100 protesters entered the Enbridge office in the Duluth Tech Village, with the rest filling the hallway right outside. Eventually the Duluth Police Department arrived at the scene and made an ultimatum. Anyone in the office could leave in a timely manner or face arrest. Most left, but seven protesters remained and are now referred to as the “Duluth 7.” The seven peacefully took a seat on the floor and were arrested and charged with trespassing. Three of the protesters were issued a $300 fine each.
Guide to Giving and Philanthropy
The Reader decided to do something meaningful for the community and the Guide to Giving and Philanthropy was born. Created as an additional insert in the first issue of December, the guide features 25 non-profits and what they do to enrich the community. In juncture with a partnership with United Way, the guide also features a directory of all of the volunteer opportunities in the Northland, and interviews with volunteers and philanthropists. The Guide to Giving and Philanthropy is now an annual tradition of The Reader.
New Staff Writer Jordan Bissell
Jordan Bissell originally was hired to do clerical work around the office and in August 10 2016, Bissell brought us her debut article about the closing of a local gallery. It is notable to mention Bissell is the youngest writer of the Reader, and the only female staff. Bissell comes from a diverse background including but not limited to community organizing, music & arts, political campaign work, and activism. Summer of 2016, she was asked to, “Put her sign down, if she wants to write about it.” Bissell’s next bout of coverage included articles on the Homeless Persons Bill of Rights, the local Go Topless protest, passionate explanations of the Electoral College, peaceful protests against racism and police brutality, mental illness awareness, Standing Rock solidarity in our community, and in-depth coverage of Uber & Lyft coming to Duluth. Bissell regularly writes a Local Biz feature.
Scoops: Visit Duluth mulls new sports commission.
by John Ramos
September 7, 2016 (not reported elsewhere)
Scoops: City cracks down on front yard parking.
by John Ramos
September 22, 2016 (7 days before other media)
Scoops: City takes over fireworks from Visit Duluth.
by John Ramos
March 23, 2017 (not reported elsewhere)
Scoops: City fails to treat Civic Center elms with fungicide in a timely manner, thus killing them.
by John Ramos
April 27, 2017 (not reported elsewhere)
Top Stories: “Parking changes”
by John Ramos
May 3, 2017
In 2017, when city staff decided to force residents to pave their backyard parking spots, the story was first reported in John Ramos’s City Beat column. The ill-conceived idea, which was generated in response to a single neighbor’s complaint about gravel runoff, was met with skepticism by the community and the city council, which unanimously rejected it.