Comments made by Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle at a Monday meeting have stirred calls this week for his condemnation, censure and even resignation.
The controversy involves Fosle's ruminations regarding a proposed policy that would require local employers to provide their workers with paid time off to deal with illnesses or other family crises.
During a public comment period, Christina St. Germaine spoke in favor of a strong earned sick and safe time policy, drawing on her own experience 31 years ago.
"When I was 19 years old, I worked a minimum-wage job with no benefits. I was 12 weeks pregnant. I was having difficulties, and my doctor ordered me to stay home," she said.
However, St. Germaine said she had no financial choice but to return to work. Although her employer did make accommodations that allowed her to work from a seated position, she miscarried that weekend.
"Maybe things would have been different if I would have been able to stay home sick and my employer provided that benefit to me. But that was not the case," St. Germaine said.
Commenting on the proposed earned sick and safe time ordinance, Fosle warned that placing burdensome regulations on local businesses could cause the local tax base to contract.
He went on to speak about the importance of personal responsibility.
"People make choices in life. If you got pregnant at 19, you did that on your own," he said, drawing gasps and jeers from the crowd.
Regathering himself, Fosle continued, saying: "Well that's too bad. Sorry you feel that way, but you made those choices. So that's what life is. Life is a choice. So, you know, and apparently with what I just heard the choices they're making are the ones that they want things for free."
In response, 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson said he found Fosle's comments judgmental and "deeply offending."
Fosle, who represents the 5th District, declined comment on the exchange when contacted by the News Tribune on Thursday. But he said that at Mayor Emily Larson's request, he will respond to the concerns that have been raised about his conduct when the Duluth City Council next meets on March 26.
A group calling itself the Twin Ports Feminist Action Collective wrote a letter to the Duluth City Council, saying that several of its members attended the March 12 meeting to listen to the first reading of the proposed earned sick and safe time ordinance and are asking for Fosle to be censured.
The letter praised St. Germaine for her testimony, saying: "Among those with the courage to speak was a woman who offered her own very personal account of how her life was tragically affected by lack of access to earned sick and safe time. Her willingness to tell her story put her in a public arena talking about extremely vulnerable topics. It was important for her to speak out about the consequences to her pregnancy of the inability to take time off. The choice of her pregnancy, the choice to work, etc., were indeed her choices.
"But the fact that anyone would be contorted into a position in which those choices are intractably restricted to either losing the income that provides them access to food and shelter, or endangering their health (or the viability of their pregnancies) is in itself proof of the need for this ordinance. Those are not real choices," the letter said.
The letter on behalf of the collective criticized Fosle, saying he "responded with a degree of ignorance and callousness unprecedented for someone sitting in any public meeting, let alone sitting as a representative for the city of Duluth."
"His response, effectively - 'You got what you got because you made bad choices' - utterly omitted both basic human compassion, and the most rudimentary understanding of the point she was making: without protections, without a strong earned sick and safe time ordinance, there is no choice," they wrote.
The group also said that subsequent to Fosle's comments, St. Germaine has been subjected to insults and personal attacks.
Council President Elissa Hansen said she doesn't believe it's the council's role to stifle discussion or pass judgment on fellow members. She suggested councilors ultimately are held to account by their constituents.
"We elect individuals, and citizens have the ability to elect different individuals or run against them. Those are kind of your two options," she said.
Hansen has served in her current council leadership role since January and said: "I really look at Monday as a learning experience for myself as council president more than anything. I don't think that we are elected to silence or muzzle citizens or each other."
But Anderson said the concerns he aired Monday about Fosle's conduct persist.
"As far as additional actions from the council, I believe that would need to come from council leadership - President Hansen - I would trust that she would work with the city attorney's office to explore if there are viable methods of action going forward," he said.
"I think it's something that's worth exploring, because I believe that the citizens' voice in the council chambers is absolutely vital to our effective leadership," Anderson said.
"At a minimum, we should be civil and empathetic, especially when we are sitting literally up on that council. I mean it's an incredible privilege, and people who come to address us come with vulnerability and courage and should be treated with respect," he said.
Hansen said she will redouble her efforts to promote civility as council president.
"My expectation is that councilors respect each other and all citizens who enter our chambers. I also expect that from our citizens. My job is to remind everyone why we're here, and we're here to hear from everyone. We're here to hear both sides. And I'm there to try to maintain a standard of decorum," she said.