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I’ve noticed that the Lake Superior Zoo has been in the news a lot lately. In August, they hired State Senator Erik Simonson as their new executive director. In an interview with the Duluth News Tribune, Simonson said that he wanted to bring the values of “education, conservation...and a twist of sustainability” to his new job, which made me wonder if running a zoo reminded him of mixing a martini.
Simonson’s new job is a big step up for him, salary-wise. As a former assistant fire chief with the city of Duluth, he probably made about $60,000 a year (that’s an educated guess). In 2015, the zoo director’s salary, with benefits, was over $85,000. Simonson will also continue to draw his state senator salary of $31,000 (serving in the Minnesota Legislature is a part-time gig) plus per diems.
On October 5, seventeen days after Simonson started work, the zoo announced that they were broke and needed $200,000 from the city to keep their doors open through the end of the year. They also asked the city to give them more time to pay back a $300,000 line of credit that they had maxed out. This news was a shock to the city council. The council had already granted the zoo a $200,000 subsidy in 2016—on top of the regular $510,000 allocation that the city gave the zoo every year—with the understanding that the zoo would immediately launch an aggressive capital fund-raising campaign to update their facilities and refurbish exhibits. Now, the city discovered, the capital campaign had scarcely begun. Not one dollar had been raised.
The city council responded to this breach of trust by delivering stern lectures, then approving another bailout. A number of councilors mentioned Senator Simonson as the reason for their affirmative vote—they had “confidence” in the new director and wanted to give him a chance. It probably didn’t hurt that all six city councilors who voted to approve the subsidy were members of the DFL party, as was Simonson. And if Simonson’s salary alone ate up nearly half of the 200K, well, what of it? The man had skills. They had seen him do great things as an assistant fire chief.
The two No votes on the council belonged to DFLer Howie Hanson and independent Jay Fosle. DFL Councilor Noah Hobbs, who sits on the zoo’s board of the directors, abstained—though that didn’t prevent him from saying a lot of nice things about the zoo during the council’s agenda session on October 5.
A big part of the zoo director’s job involves lobbying the state Legislature for money. In the News Tribune story, Simonson actually seemed to view this conflict of interest as a selling point: “Having written bills that included zoo funding in the past, Simonson said his role as a legislator will give him ‘a lever’ to seek future state funds.” Are we looking at a bizarre situation where Simonson works to bring zoo legislation to the floor of the Senate, then recuses himself from voting on it?
Apparently so. When I spoke with Simonson recently, he said, “I had some conversations with our chief Senate counsel and some leaders in our caucus, just trying to understand how we would handle this….You know, I don’t want to be in a position, for example, where I’m chief author of a bonding bill for the Lake Superior Zoo [and then vote on it]...If there’s even a chance of a perception of a conflict, I’ll recuse myself.”
I pressed the issue. “But, I mean, as president of the zoo, you’ll be pursuing certain things, lobbying for certain things for the zoo. And then if those things come to a vote, you’ll recuse yourself from voting on them?”
“If it’s identified as a potential conflict,” Simonson repeated. “We don’t want to create any perception of a conflict of interest, so we’re going to treat it very carefully.”
To my mind, any zoo-related vote would be a stark, unambiguous conflict of interest for the senator. But hey—as long as they were going to “treat it carefully,” who was I to complain? Maybe the zoo could hire a new legislator every year and keep the subsidies flowing in that way.
Google Fiber, seven years on
In 2010, Google announced that it wanted to install fiber-optic cable in a select community in the country in order to test-run a new Internet-providing service. Called Google Fiber, the project promised blazing-fast connection speeds for users, as well as national recognition for the host town. Dozens of towns instantly leaped up, waving their hands wildly to be picked. Duluth Mayor Don Ness was one of the most enthusiastic hand-wavers, saying that Fiber had the potential to “revolutionize the city.” Not to be outdone, the Duluth News Tribune compared Google Fiber to US Steel, which once employed 5,000 people in Duluth.
Knowing that Google had a reputation as a “creative” company, Ness and community leaders set out to convince Google that Duluth was creative, too. A consultant was hired to “build buzz” about Duluth’s sweetness. The mayor jumped into Lake Superior in February. A short film entitled Google Goes to Twin Ports told the story of an orphan girl named Google who traveled to Duluth as a stowaway in a panel truck, where she demonstrated her powers by briefly speeding up traffic on Superior Street. “I make things go faster,” she explained to an awestruck bystander.
Later, when a city economic development adviser befriends Google and offers her a cup of coffee, Google rudely pushes it away. “Coffee should be served at 160 degrees Fahrenheit,” she says judgmentally. “This is 151.2 degrees, so about 10 more seconds in the microwave should do it, if it’s not too much trouble.” In the finale, the ungrateful little nitpicker attends a mayoral ceremony in her honor, where the audience chants “Goo-gle! Goo-gle!” and Mayor Ness presents her with a puppy.
If this sounds painful, believe me, the reality is much worse. (The film can still be viewed on YouTube.) The executives at Google took one look and ran to Kansas City as fast as they could. It probably also helped that Kansas City had a much larger population, and that they waived millions of dollars in right-of-way fees to reel Google in.
Now it turns out that Google Fiber isn’t doing so hot in Kansas City. After tearing up the streets and installing the miraculous fiber network, higher-than-expected costs and a lower-than-expected subscriber base have hampered Fiber’s expansion. The company has missed deadlines to install fiber in a number of communities, many customers have received refunds, and increased competition with fast new wireless technologies is diminishing the glow of Fiber’s promise. A recent article in the Kansas City Star noted that while there have been some success stories, “high-speed internet has not fundamentally changed Kansas City, as some thought it would.”
Is it possible that Google Goes to Twin Ports may have helped us dodge a bullet?
City hires new parks director
For many years, Kathy Bergen directed the city’s Parks Department. Bergen retired in 2015, and was replaced by Lindsay Dean. Dean lasted only a little over a year before resigning and moving on. Since March, the position has been vacant. Kathy Bergen has been filling in on a limited interim basis. Now a new parks director has been hired: William Roche.
As of press time, I was unable to contact Roche, but by all indications he seems to be highly qualified. According to his biography at the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands at Indiana University, Roche is a “Senior Program Manager” with “25 years of experience of working in public parks.” Before joining the faculty at IU, Roche headed the Hendricks County Parks and Recreation Department for 10 years. In a 2015 article in the Hendricks County Flyer, Roche said that during his tenure with the county annual visitation at the parks had grown from 4,000 to 120,000.
That does seem to be quite a jump. Roche will begin his new job with the city in late October or early November.
City hires new forester
For the last few months, the city has also had a new part-time forester who works 13.5 hours per week. While this may not seem like a lot—and it isn’t—it is considerably more than the zero foresters we had working before. The position has been unfilled since Kelly Fleissner retired in September of 2016, and even when Fleissner was there the position carried so many other duties that actual forestry only accounted for a small part of it.
Now Clark Christenson holds the title. A professional forester by trade, Christenson formerly served on the city’s Urban Forest Commission, where he seemed to know his stuff.
Probably the biggest issue we’re facing is the impending mass death of ash trees in the city due to the emerald ash borer invasion, which will create an even greater fire hazard in areas that were hit with giant blowdowns in 2016. If we decide to plant understory seedlings to replace the ash in some areas, we will need a forester to help us with that. We also have to keep close track of the ash trees along the boulevards that we choose to save, as prompt two-year injections are necessary to keep them alive.
All of our parks could certainly benefit from a forester’s eye. So if Clark could fit a comprehensive survey of the parks into his 13.5 hours as well, that would be great.