Duluth city attorney placed on administrative suspension

A law firm will be brought in to investigate.

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson holds a press conference in front of the Pastoret Terrace building, former home of the Kozy Bar, hailing an October 2019 court decision that the city should be allowed to tear down the fire-damaged structure. (News Tribune file photo)
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Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said he was "totally shocked and blindsided" to learn that he had been placed on administrative suspension at a meeting last Wednesday.

"When I walked into that room, there was no thought in my mind that anything like this would happen," said Johnson, who claims he has not yet received any formal or written explanation for the suspension.

When the News Tribune asked Mayor Emily Larson and Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, about the situation, they responded by issuing the following statement: "Because this is a personnel matter, the city of Duluth will not provide comment at this time.”

Johnson said he has gleaned that concerns were raised about how he was supervising the city attorney's office, which is staffed by 17 people. The city attorney's office handles criminal, civil, administrative and human resources matters.

It is Johnson's understanding that a Twin Cities law firm has been retained to investigate city administration's concerns about his job performance.


"I take this matter very seriously, and I am committed to cooperate fully. I hope the process is a fair and thorough one that gets all the facts out there," said Johnson, acknowledging that "my career and my reputation hang in the balance."

Johnson has served as Duluth's city attorney since summer 2008. Prior to that, he worked more than seven years for the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.

As city attorney, Johnson receives an annual salary of $131,028, second only to the city's chief administrative officer, who makes $153,000.

Both Duluth's city attorney and chief administrative officer serve at the pleasure of the mayor and City Council. Duluth's mayor previously had the sole right to determine who would be placed in these positions, but that administrative structure changed after former Mayor Herb Bergson ignominiously fired former Chief Administrative Officer Mark Winson by taping a note to his office door in 2005.

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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