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Sharla Gardner(right) was among new Duluth city councilors who raised their right hands and were sworn into office in January 2008. (File / News Tribune)

Duluth city councilor under fire: Recall organizers speak, Gardner responds

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Last week, a grass-roots campaign was launched to oust Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner. A website was unveiled (recallcouncilorgardner.org). Lawn signs were planted. And a Park Point couple stood before the media to express their frustrations with Gardner’s recent push to move the Park Point S-curve closer to the Aerial Lift Bridge, her inability to stop the closure of the Park Point fire hall and other actions they say are in contrast to her constituents’ wishes.

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Though they’re the only ones speaking publicly, Mike and Deb Medlin say their effort is growing from a core group of 10 to 12 disgruntled 3rd District residents. Below is some of what the Medlins had to say last week in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page and with a News Tribune reporter, and a response from Councilor Gardner, written at the request of the Opinion page.

‘Years of frustration’ “This is just a culmination of three years of frustration working with (Councilor Sharla Gardner). If there was an attitude that, ‘I’ll work with you’ (or) ‘I’ll listen to you,’ but there has not been that attitude. She’s more interested in her political or her personal opinion about what’s best rather than considering and working for the residents of District 3. …

“We had a group of over 100 at the council meeting urging the council to vote ‘no’ on the change to the S-curve and … she just dismissed us. … She had the same attitude toward the group of people who showed up two years ago to talk about the loss of (the Park Point) fire hall. Those people were just dismissed. She’s supposed to represent our interests, and when we speak she’s supposed to support us. It’s not her personal agenda. It’s what the residents of Park Point want.”

Deb Medlin is an accountant who lives on Park Point and is helping lead the effort to recall Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner.

‘No longer is listening’ “This kind of started with the Park Point Small Area Plan a few years ago. … (But) it started initially with the zoning, the downzoning, of three blocks of commercial property on Park Point, from (Eighth Street to 10th Street). Three blocks that were zoned for 100 years ‘commercial’ were now downzoned to ‘residential.’ Now the reason this was done was to stop (a hotel proposal). There were a group of neighbors up above that were disgruntled about this, so they contacted (Councilor Sharla Gardner who) got involved (and) they got this downzone. There were existing businesses that were up and running that were downzoned and at the present time we were involved in that: my business. … I’m a contractor. I’ve been in business for almost 30 years. We do custom residential houses. We were caught up in this, in the crosshairs. … Now if we have a fire and there’s more than 50 percent damage we cannot rebuild (due to the rezoning). We are done as a business. …

“They want to move (Park Point’s) S-curve up toward the (Aerial Lift) Bridge and along with that they wanted … to open up 16 access points (to the waterfront) on Park Point. Right now we have three (that) are non-ADA compliable, so there are some serious issues here and that has been already addressed by a coalition on Park Point called the Street End Coalition. They submitted letters to the city. … The city wants Park Pointers to choose which (dead-end streets) to open up (to the public to the beach or waterfront). So what you’re doing, and Sharla is pushing this, what you’re doing is pitting Park Pointers against Park Pointers: ‘Your yard, not my yard.’ …

“We have given this a great deal of thought because, believe me, this is very serious. The recall of a public official is serious. Everybody’s reputation is put on the line. What we’re saying is it has come to this point, this is how bad it has gotten for us, that this is our last resort. The Duluth City Charter allows for the recall of a city councilor if they no longer serve the interests of the district. This is where we’re coming from. I mean she no longer is listening. …

Mike Medlin is a contractor who lives on Park Point and is helping lead the effort to recall Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner.

Sharla Gardner in her own defense: Honest planning disagreement transformed into conflict Because I strongly believe in our democratic system of government, whenever even one citizen expresses dissatisfaction with an elected official, I believe that representative has an obligation to respond.

Park Point is a very special place with unique needs. The Point is the largest freshwater sand spit in the world and draws people from all over the city and other parts of the country to enjoy the beach, pursue sailing and boating activities and walk the old-growth pine forest. At the same time, it is a long-established residential neighborhood with roots that go back to the founding of the city.

As the city councilor for that neighborhood, I work hard to represent Park Point.

When airport issues threatened the old-growth forest, I worked with the community to persuade the Duluth Airport Authority to adopt a new runway alignment that will preserve the forest. I worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and neighborhood residents to develop an Aerial Lift Bridge schedule for recreational boats that allows citizens to plan their activities and errands. I fought against the sale of park land on Park Point. Although we could not prevent the sale of the lakefront property, we did save a bayside parcel (now a wildlife sanctuary) from the auction block.

And when I learned that the Park Point fire hall was slated for closure, I fought with all my heart to keep it open. I was the only councilor who questioned the out-of-state consultant who recommended the closure. I met with city administrators to persuade them to change the plan, to no avail. I organized a rally and news conference outside of the fire hall to inform the larger community of the serious public safety risks residents would face if the fire hall was closed. I wrote a commentary that was published in the News Tribune. I invited residents to come to the council meeting and speak to the council, which they did. I voted against the fire hall closure; sadly, the majority of the council voted to close it. I asked the chief to keep an EMT presence on the Point after the closure, which he did.

The individuals complaining about my actions say I did nothing to save the fire hall. That is simply untrue. In fact, I did everything in my power as an elected official to save it. And I continue to advocate for a new fire hall on the Point.

It is true there have been some honest disagreements between me and a number of residents regarding the Park Point Small Area Plan. I did support the plan, including a move of the S-curve as a long-range option that would be implemented only if there was sufficient development in the area to merit the change. I supported it because, from a long-range planning standpoint, moving traffic to the commercial area along Minnesota Avenue would calm traffic and mitigate disruption on Lake Avenue. This was a tough decision for me, but I made it with the best interests of the entire neighborhood in mind. The majority of the council voted against changing the S-curve because while the idea has merit the neighborhood clearly is not ready for it. I respect the collective wisdom of the council in this matter.

The street-end/ beach-access component of the plan is an effort to compromise between two very different points of view. Some want all of the city right-of-way areas to have public access and others want no or very limited beach access. Rather than ram through the current plan, I amended it to require the differing groups, city staff and me to meet within 90 days to review the designated access points and to come up with a satisfactory solution. We’ll need to stay tuned for the outcome as the meeting is scheduled for the end of July.

As a public policymaker, I am accustomed to agreeing to disagree on various issues, resolving them, making decisions and moving forward. I understand those who are potentially directly affected by these issues find that more difficult to do, regardless of the outcome. (With regard to the S-curve, the outcome ultimately ended up in favor of those who disagreed with me.)

While I will always defend the right to recall an elected official, it is most unfortunate that a small group of people has transformed an honest disagreement about planning issues into a divisive and destructive conflict.

Sharla Gardner represents the 3rd District on the Duluth City Council.

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