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Duluth council seat to remain vacant after leading candidate withdraws

The Duluth City Council appeared on the verge of appointing Gary Eckenberg to serve as an interim replacement for 4th District Councilor Garry Krause, who formally resigned his post Monday night.

Gary Eckenberg
Gary Eckenberg

The Duluth City Council appeared on the verge of appointing Gary Eckenberg to serve as an interim replacement for 4th District Councilor Garry Krause, who formally resigned his post Monday night.

But Eckenberg, who has lived in the district since 1975 and is employed by St. Louis County as a deputy administrator, withdrew himself from consideration after learning his prospective tenure on the council would be even shorter than he had anticipated.

Under questioning by Councilors Jim Stauber and Jay Fosle, Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson agreed that the charter would call for any interim councilor to serve only until the results of November's general election are certified. He acknowledged that his opinion represented a departure from past council practice of 40 years or more. Replacement councilors typically have served until January when new councilors normally take office.

Explaining his decision to withdraw, Eckenberg said: "A three-month appointment made a lot of sense to me, but a one-month appointment doesn't."

Councilor Sharla Gardner expressed frustration, saying: "This is probably the worst-case scenario I could possibly imagine. I don't know what to do, except to implore Mr. Eckenberg to reconsider. There still is a lot to do between now and the election, and the 4th District deserves full representation. That's what our charter requires."

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Eckenberg said he fully agreed that the people of his district deserve representation for the next three months of the year, but he said he couldn't see much value in an interim councilor who would attend just two meetings and then step down.

In light of Monday's developments, the council voted 4-3 to remove from the agenda the resolution to appoint an interim replacement for Krause. The motion was made by Councilor Jennifer Julsrud and was supported by Councilors Fosle, Stauber and Patrick Boyle. Councilors Gardner, Dan Hartman and Emily Larson voted against withdrawing the resolution. Councilor Linda Krug was absent from the meeting, and Krause was required to abstain under council rules.

Krause has cited a new job that conflicts with his continued service on the City Council as the reason for his departure. He still has not publicly disclosed what that new job is. Until June 30, Krause had been employed as an academic dean at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Superior.

After the meeting, Krause said he was relieved by the council's decision to wait for voters to pick his successor.

"I was afraid there was a one-vote purpose for appointing someone to replace me," he said.

Krause represents a critical swing vote on the council. He is one of three city councilors who have opposed a city administration plan to take $2.2 million from Duluth's Community Investment Trust to pay off bonds that will come due in 2014. At least seven of nine councilors must approve any such expenditure of trust funds.

The balance in the trust fund has waned since its primary source of funding dried up in 2009, when the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa determined it was inappropriate to continue honoring a casino revenue-sharing agreement with the city of Duluth. The band's decision since has been affirmed by federal regulators and the courts alike, though litigation with the city continues.

If it's unable to tap the trust, the city may need to draw down its general fund reserves, placing its bond rating in jeopardy, or make deep cuts in general fund spending.

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Had he accepted an interim appointment, this would have been Eckenberg's third stint as an interim Duluth city councilor.

In 2000, he was appointed to serve in place of 4th District Councilor Dale Swapinski, who left his post to join the Minnesota Legislature. And in 2009, he replaced At Large City Councilor Roger Reinert, who also won election to the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Krause had already filed for re-election when he decided to step down, and his name will still appear on the ballot in November despite his resignation Monday. Only one other candidate, Howie Hanson, a blogger and public relations consultant, had challenged Krause, and his name also will appear on the ballot.

There have been rumors of prospective write-in candidates jumping into the race, but no one else has yet launched a formal campaign for the seat.

Duluth's 4th District includes the city's Lincoln Park, Duluth Heights and Piedmont Heights neighborhoods.

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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