BUZZ Blog: Why the mayor needs permission to drive to Superior
Peter Passi and Brandon Stahl cover issues related to the city of Duluth. Follow BUZZ on Twitter.
If you should happen to see Mayor Don Ness driving across the bridge into Superior, ask yourself this: did he get permission to do that from the city council?
Because he might have needed it.
Seriously. A few weeks ago the council enacted an out-of-state travel policy for elected officials that, in essence, requires the mayor to get permission from the council president before he travels to other states for official business. Technically, that could include meetings with Superior Mayor Dave Ross.
The policy was born from all the Sister Cities Controversies a few years ago, said councilors Todd Fedora and Jeff Anderson, as a way to deal with the travel issues beforehand rather than have controversies erupt after. It was also, Fedora said, a way to comply with the League of Minnesota Cities, which recommended that all municipalities adopt some sort of travel policy.
And according to some on the council, the policy proposed a few weeks ago, with a few tweaks, was similar to what the League recommended. Only somehow, it ended up with the mayor needing the council president's approval to travel out of state, even to Superior.
Which is why last night the council voted on changing the policy, but even that went sideways. Councilor Jim Stauber noted during debate that the revised policy would see the city's chief administrative officer approve the mayor's travel. He said he wouldn't approve the change, and four councilors chimed in to agree.
CAO David Montgomery essentially said last night (I'm paraphrasing here) that he was highly ethical person and he would scrutinize travel expenses regardless of who was mayor. Even if that was true (and knowing Mongtomery, I take him at his word on that. The guy is Duluth's version of George Washington) he won't be the CAO forever. The point of the travel policy is for the public to be able hold elected officials accountable for their travel expenses. We can't always trust that the judgment of the CAO alone would do that.
"We've certainly seen over the last many years CAO's who maybe don't have as high a degree as ethics and integrity as Mr. Montgomery," said Fedora.
Counters Anderson: the mayor really shouldn't have to get approval from anyone on his travel. Those expenses are public record, and voters will hold him accountable. So adding in the CAO as a point of approval, Anderson said, "is a safeguard."
The council ultimately ended up sending the resolution back to the administration for revision. But I asked the mayor for his thoughts on the matter, and he seemed a bit peeved at the council:
"From a practical stand-point the issue is unimportant. I don't particularly like to travel for work and I don't do it often. Aside from trips to Superior, it's been two years since I have taken an out-of-state trip and I've only taken two trips since becoming mayor.
My concern is that this Council seems very interested in micro-managing and politicizing administrative functions. The City Charter is very clear about the separation of duties between the Council and administration. The Council should be focused on policy matters, they should spend their time focused on the broader issues facing our city. I'm concerned that our Council spends the majority of their time on small and insignificant details at the determent of their policy responsibilities.
The other concerning trend is that the Council increasingly creates off-the-cuff policy at council meetings. In this example, the attorney's office spent weeks working with councilors to craft a policy consistent with the Charter. Then out of no-where, at the council meeting, an amendment is offered that requires me to gain a councilor's approval to have lunch with Mayor Ross in Superior. It's poor process and it's a concerning trend in how the Council conducts their business."