Garry Krause wants his colleagues on the Duluth City Council to step up and play a bigger role in overseeing local utility rates and fees. Toward that end, he has proposed an ordinance change that would empower the City Council to reject any rate increase by a simple majority vote.
Under current rules, a supermajority of six out of nine councilors must vote to overturn any proposed rate increase by the Duluth Public Utilities Commission.
"The probability of achieving a supermajority is virtually zero," Krause said. "By putting rates to a simple majority vote, it makes the whole system more transparent."
But others contend that rates are best set by the commission, rather than a political body such as the council.
Councilor Jennifer Julsrud said members of the utilities commission have invested hundreds of hours into understanding the city's water, gas and sewer systems and what is needed to sustain them. She said that when rates were simply left for the council to approve, people often lacked the political will to sufficiently fund public utility systems, and the city now is paying the price for years of neglect.
"Politicians are rewarded for short-term thinking, and this (our critical utilities infrastructure) requires long-term thinking," said Julsrud, who chaired the utility commission before being elected to City Council.
Julsrud said the council retains veto power over the utilities commission under the current system, and three council representatives serve on the seven-member board.
But Krause points out that the majority of members serving on the utilities commission are not elected.
"With the public utilities commission, you don't have the same kind of transparency and accountability we have on the council," Krause said. "If people aren't happy with my performance on the council, they have recourse: They can get rid of me."
Councilor Jim Stauber, who has been critical of the decision-making power of the utilities commission since its April 2010 inception, said the City Council shouldn't shirk its duties.
"As councilors, we need to take responsibility for the city's finances, and that includes any utility increases," he said.
Stauber said delegating rate decisions to a commission unfortunately provides convenient cover.
"We ought to take the heat when we take money from our constituents," he said. "We can't hide behind some other group."
Council President Dan Hartman said he did not want to get into debate at Thursday night's agenda session, but he put Krause on notice that he would not be supporting the proposal.
Julsrud expressed frustration with Krause, saying: "He didn't talk to anyone, and he didn't do his homework. I'm really disappointed about this."
Should the council decide to support Krause's measure, Julsrud contends councilors should be ready to shoulder more work.
"If the council passes this, I will put forward a motion to disband the public utilities commission. I will call on the council to step up and spend the hours and hours of time it takes to get up to speed on this issue," Julsrud said.
The council is scheduled to give Krause's ordinance amendment its first reading on Monday. But the soonest it could come to a vote is by April 9.
David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, said the administration would not wade into the issue at this time.