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Councilors get first look at new office space

Duluth City Councilor Howie Hanson stands in the interim room for councilor use at City Hall. "It's a good start," Hanson said.

After years of requests, Duluth city councilors finally have a place to call home at City Hall.

This week, many councilors are getting their first glimpse of a modest shared office space where they can get online, conduct research, study issues and consult with constituents outside the formal confines of the chambers where they publicly convene for official business.

So far, the space has met with mixed reviews.

“This is a good first step, but we can do better,” 4th District City Councilor Howie Hanson said as he surveyed the spartan office containing two desks and a small, circular table surrounded by four chairs.

“This is about a bigger issue of respect. And I would hope that, moving forward, the council won’t continue to be treated like a fly that’s landed in the city administration’s soup bowl,”  Hanson said.

Hanson is still in his first year on the job as a councilor but noted with frustration that the council has had a long-standing request for a meeting space at city hall.

“I used to bring it up at about every other council meeting,” former City Council President Dan Hartman recalled. “It almost became a running joke because every time I did that, administration sort of pawned it off,” he said.

Duluth’s chief administrative officer, David Montgomery, explained that the entire layout of city hall had to be reconsidered.

“We wanted a coordinated plan that would work well for staff and most importantly citizens. It took a lot of planning because there were a lot of moving pieces,” he said.

“We’re always appreciative of the council’s patience, but I think it’s also worthwhile to remember that it’s extremely rare for cities of our size to provide office space for part-time councilors,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said the repurposed police room was given a fresh coat of paint; new carpet was laid; acoustic ceiling tiles were installed and soon some bookshelves filled with useful resources will join the office’s other modest furnishings.

Councilor Sharla Gardner agreed, noting that it’s not always appropriate to meet with constituents either in her home or in public venues to discuss sometimes sensitive issues.

“I’m glad that we finally have something, but it’s my hope that this is an interim solution,” she said. She noted that the office’s only window looks out on a parking area. “There’s almost no ventilation. It’s very stuffy. And it’s going to smell being next to a garage like that.”

By the same token, Gardner expressed appreciation, saying: “I know a lot of people made a good-faith effort to make it a nice place for us, and I appreciate that.”

Hanson said he wishes the council’s needs had simply had been better addressed.

“We just want a place where we can do the people’s business,” he said. “You wouldn’t think that would be so difficult.”