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Group to examine changing Duluth's form of government

A special committee will begin discussions next month that could demote Duluth's mayor forever. Some think the city should instead have a professional administrator in charge of day-to-day business. Changing the city charter would elevate the Cit...

A special committee will begin discussions next month that could demote Duluth's mayor forever.

Some think the city should instead have a professional administrator in charge of day-to-day business.

Changing the city charter would elevate the City Council's influence, as the mayor would become one vote of seven, instead of having veto power.

Duluth Charter Commission president Dan Maddy has appointed five commission members to weigh the pros and cons of the two systems.

"It's been 50 yearssince we last had a significant change," Maddy said. "There are a number of folks in the community at least interested."

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The discussion has created a buzz among some groups.

At a recent Charter Commission meeting, members of Progressive Action, a grassroots political action group, and the Chamber of Commerce said they support further discussion. Union leaders are more wary.

Others say the current setup is worth keeping, because it gives voters more accountability. Duluth needs a highly visible cheerleader, they say.

Maddy said he hasn't made up his mind. Duluth is a complex city and may need a leader with vision, he said.

Duluth is one of four Minnesota cities with a "strong mayor" form of government. Under this system, an elected mayor hires department heads, who oversee daily operations. Under a "city manager" form, a professional administrator would do this task, deferring to the city council on policy matters.

Mayor Herb Bergson said Duluth has a great system of government and any change would be terrible.

"I have no horse in this race, but to have a manager who is not responsible to the voters will breed arrogance," Bergson said via e-mail. "Also, city managers tend to provide basic services and are not always passionate about important issues like human rights."

A change has been discussed in the past. City Councilor Russ Stewart said last year -- and last month -- that such a change could improve how the city functions.

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Any proposal would have to go through a 15-member Charter Commission. The commission is appointed by a district court judge to ensure its independence and existence.

Three other Minnesota cities -- Northfield, St. Cloud and St. Paul -- have long maintained the strong mayor system.

Most other cities hire a clerk, manager or administrator. Because Duluth operates under a charter, it has wide latitude on its form of government, said Jeannette Bach, research manager for the League of Minnesota Cities.

Duluth does have a chief administrative officer, but he is hired, and occasionally fired, by the mayor. Mayor Herb Bergson did so last year when he fired his top administrator. Bergson later picked the eventual successor.

A change in form may or may not be necessary, but the balance of city power must be restored, said Joel Sipress, former Charter Commission member, University of Wisconsin-Superior history professor and Green Party activist. He called Duluth's system a "very strong mayor."

Today's system allows the mayor too much patronage, Sipress said. But an unelected city manager also would hold all the cards.

Sipress supports more power for the council, which doesn't even have oversight authority, as the U.S. Congress does over the executive branch. The city took a step in the right direction when the Duluth Economic Development Authority membership changed from mayoral appointees to elected City Council members, he said.

What's important is that the issue has a full public airing, said Marshall Stenersen, an AFSCME field representative, who said he's not in either camp on the issue. Union leaders may be wary of a change, so knowing all the details is important, he said.

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"We don't want this to happen in a vacuum," Stenersen said.

City Attorney Bryan Brown said there are a few ways the city charter can be changed:

* Voters can petition to the Charter Commission for a change, or

* The Charter Commission can send recommendations to the City Council or to the voters.

The council must approve a charter change by a 9-0 vote, according to state law. Voters must approve the change with 51 percent support.

City councils often ask the Charter Commission to make a recommendation, Brown said.

Councilor Garry Krause recently asked for such an action. In an e-mail to the council, Krause wrote that having one city manager would replace two salaried positions -- the mayor and chief administrative officer.

Most cities in Minnesota elect a mayor and four or six councilors to one legislative body. The council, in turn, hires a clerk and treasurer.

Three Minnesota cities about Duluth's size -- Bloomington, Burnsville and Rochester -- have either acity administrator or city manager.

But the size of the city has little to do with the style of government, said Bach of the League of Minnesota Cities.

Led by Joseph Ferguson, Charter Commission members will meet at 5 p.m. Jan. 2 in Council Chambers, City Hall, 411 W. First St. They include Cynthia Albright, former city councilor; Jeff Anderson, media executive; Jim Booth, a financial consultant; and Eli Miletich, ex-Duluth police chief.

JASON MOHR covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached at (218) 723-5312 or by e-mail at jmohr@duluthnews.com .

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