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Duluth City Councilor argues for wider discussion of utility rates, FDL casino lawsuit

The Duluth City Council spent a chunk of Thursday night debating what was and was not appropriate fodder for upcoming committee of the whole meetings.

The Duluth City Council spent a chunk of Thursday night debating what was and was not appropriate fodder for upcoming committee of the whole meetings.

Councilor Jim Stauber sought open fact-gathering meetings to discuss proposed water rate hikes and the city's ongoing litigation involving the Fond-du-Luth Casino. Stauber suggested two committee of the whole meetings, each at least an hour long, would allow for more in-depth consideration of both issues than would be possible in a normal council meeting.

But Council President Dan Hartman was cool to either idea, at least in the near future.

Water rates

In making the case for a committee meeting, Stauber called the proposed rate increase unprecedented.

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"We'd be establishing new water rates for the third time in a year without even seeing a budget," he said. Stauber said a committee of the whole meeting would allow for the council to become better informed on the rationale for another increase.

But Hartman said the council had given a new Public Utilities Commission autonomous authority to set rates for a reason: to depoliticize the process and provide adequate funding to repair the city's aged and faltering infrastructure.

The council retained the right to veto any proposed rate increases, but set a high bar to do so. At least six of nine sitting councilors would need to vote down a proposed rate change approved by the utilities commission in order to overturn it.

Hartman expressed concern that a committee of the whole meeting could serve as an opportunity to second-guess the utilities commission.

"I don't want to set the bad precedent of having the City Council micromanage the utilities commission," he said.

Not to be dissuaded, Stauber asked for a council vote to reject Hartman's decision. But only one other councilor, Garry Krause, came to his support.

"It feels like we're trying to insulate a body from public view," he said.

At Monday's meeting the council will consider competing resolutions to either approve or veto the water rate increases.

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Casino litigation

Stauber also asked Hartman when a committee of the whole meeting would be scheduled to discuss the city's ongoing battle with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa over a disputed casino revenue-sharing agreement. A couple of weeks ago, Hartman agreed to schedule such a meeting and have a public discussion about the case, instead of going into closed session as the council has in the past to discuss the matter. That meeting initially was scheduled for June 11, but it was pushed off at the request of Councilor Jennifer Julsrud, who was unable to attend.

Hartman said he was inclined to hold off scheduling a meeting because City Attorney Gunnar Johnson would probably be coming forward with a request to continue paying legal bills for the case in the near future. Hartman suggested it would make most sense to discuss the case in the context of that new request.

However, Stauber said he was eager to discuss mounting litigation costs and also asked that band Chairwoman Karen Diver be invited to join in discussion with the council.

"I think that would be inappropriate," Johnson said.

Stauber said he appreciated the city attorney's opinion but would still like to hear from Diver.

Councilor Linda Krug advised against publicly discussing an active legal case, especially with an opposing litigant.

"I think it will undermine the city's lawsuit," she said, noting that "An enormous amount of money is at stake."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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