Make 'em count: election preview
Voters will make key decisions affecting the future of Duluth in Tuesday's elections. A controversial smoking ordinance, funding for the public schools, the makeup of a school board facing ongoing budget problems plus declining enrollment, and a ...
Voters will make key decisions affecting the future of Duluth in Tuesday's elections. A controversial smoking ordinance, funding for the public schools, the makeup of a school board facing ongoing budget problems plus declining enrollment, and a City Council embroiled in controversy -- all will be much clearer come Wednesday.
Here's a recap of the issues facing Duluthians in the voting booth:
In the council race for District 2, which encompasses parts of Woodland, Congdon and Endion neighborhoods, incumbent and former City Council president Greg Gilbert faces challenger Pat Spott. Both Spott and Gilbert are attorneys.
Greg Gilbert: Gilbert, the only incumbent running, has lived in Duluth for 15 years. His law specialty is small business development, and he is running on his record.
"I'm very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish in the last four years," he said of the council during a Budgeteer News endorsement committee interview.
Gilbert says he has a different vision for Duluth, which led him to oppose the USS Des Moines and snowmobiles on the Lakewalk. He sees the Comprehensive Plan, of which he is major proponent, as a means to ending controversy over development and instilling some much-needed confidence.
Gilbert has explored the legal issues during the Spirit Mountain golf course controversy and would prefer to see the course built on the steel plant site in West Duluth. Gilbert favors the smoking ordinance and voted for both the original ordinance and the stricter amended version, although he said he was still open to possible changes that would allow relief for affected businesses.
Pat Spott: Spott focuses on employment law in his business, as well as small business. He said he was prompted to run by watching council meetings and getting angry at what he sees as an anti-business and anti-development attitude, "in particular with my opponent, and I'm running to change that," he told the endorsement committee.
Spott likens economic development in Duluth to defense at the national level: something that requires bipartisanship. While he says he wouldn't approve every project, Spott said Duluth didn't even talk about green space issues 10 years ago.
"I think Duluth is wonderful in its green space," he said.
Spott favors two of the most controversial development projects on the table: the McQuade Road safe harbor and the Spirit Mountain golf course. He has repeatedly condemned the council's handling of the smoking ordinance but has shifted his position on the ordinance itself, which he told the Budgeteer News early in his campaign he could live with but now opposes altogether. Spott said he will stand by the referendum results.
Primary: In the primary, Gilbert got 1,333 votes and Spott 811.
In District 4, which includes parts of West Duluth and Piedmont, former councilor Neill Atkins faces newcomer Roger Reinert.
Neill Atkins: Atkins has lived in Duluth his whole life except for his military service, including time in Vietnam. He has taught social studies, worked as a township constable, hosted a radio show and been involved in several community groups, as well as serving 12 years in the council. Atkins now works in the investment business.
Atkins is a firm advocate for economic development, a trait he sees lacking in the current council, and he wants the council to work more closely with the mayor.
"I like a strong mayor form of government," he told the endorsement committee.
While not in favor of the smoking ordinance, he, like all the candidates, has said he will abide by the outcome of the referendum. He also favors the Spirit Mountain golf course: "I don't golf, but I think it would be a great idea to have a golf course up there," he said.
Roger Reinert: Reinert, who has a master's degree from the University of Minnesota and was raised in rural Minnesota, has experience in education, including time at the UMD med school. Reinert now owns his own educational consulting business and owns several apartment buildings in Duluth.
Reinert sees retaining young people as the major issue facing Duluth and housing and education as core parts of that issue.
On economic development, Reinert wants more effort put into working with small developers, invigorating a spirit of local entrepreneurship and creating a "local knowledge economy" with higher education. He doesn't approve of how the council fights over developments of every size.
Reinert does not favor the Spirit Mountain golf course because of the many obstacles facing the project but says there would be few grounds to oppose the permits if the legal hurdles are overcome. He says he will vote "yes-yes" on the smoking referendum but will abide by that vote's outcome.
Reinert espouses a personal philosophy of building bridges: "It does no good to demonize people in order to win points," he said.
Primary: Atkins captured 964 votes in the primary to 825 for Reinert.
The at-large race features four candidates, Herb Bergson, Marcia Hales, Nancy Nelson and Jim Stauber, running for two seats.
Herb Bergson: Bergson was born in Duluth but lived for 36 years in Superior, serving as mayor there. He is a detective on the Superior Police Force.
Bergson now lives in the Spirit Valley area of Duluth and wants to return to public service. He says he is an innovator.
Bergson opposes the Spirit Mountain golf course on the grounds it would compete with existing courses, a perspective he says is enhanced by his knowledge of the golf course industry.
However, he said, "I'm not one of these people that says 'no' to every project."
On economic development, Bergson's strategy is to help existing businesses thrive and grow. "A lot of times, the secret's right there," he said. Bergson favors some sort of control on secondhand smoke in restaurants, a position he believes could get 90 percent agreement, but is not sold on the current ordinance, which he believes doesn't allow enough leeway for hurting businesses. He says he will abide by the referendum.
Marcia Hales: Hales is a lifelong Duluth resident who graduated from UMD and is known for her Christmas light show on Park Point as well as a past term on the council for District 3. She likens the city to a business, with the mayor as CEO and the council as the board of directors, emphasizing cooperation as well as power sharing.
Hales cites her business experience as evidence of her support for economic development and classifies herself as "very supportive" of the Spirit Mountain golf course project.
Hales opposes the smoking ordinance, saying she has spoken to many businesses hurting from it. She says it could have been addressed by the council by raising it with the Duluth delegation to the state Legislature.
Her priority is to bring "balance" back to the council, focusing on infrastructure issues, such as stormwater and policing, which she says will in turn help the economy. She was a proponent of the Technology Village in her time on the council.
While she denounces what she calls the "green agenda," she says Duluth can work within the environment and still progress.
Nancy Nelson: Nelson has lived in Duluth since 1987. She has a master's degree in geology from UMD, worked for the Department of Natural Resources on a special two-year project and has worked as an environmental consultant. She now makes her living as a freelance technical science writer and lives in the East Hillside.
Nelson has worked with the city in several areas, including the tree commission and the comprehensive planning committee. She cites the latter as a key to Duluth's future: "I think the comprehensive plan is really important; it's a really crucial thing, and we need to do it right," she said.
She is a leading opponent of the Spirit Mountain golf course. She calls the old-growth forest there "a pretty special resource on its own" that the city can build on with "eco-tourism."
Nelson says the most pressing issue facing the council besides Spirit Mountain is infrastructure, and she believes the city needs a new strategy on revitalizing development in the downtown area.
Nelson supports the smoking ordinance but recognizes the potential for hardship on businesses. "I was glad I wasn't on the council making the decision," she said, noting she will abide by the referendum. She calls herself a quick learner and says her background would bring diversity to the council.
Jim Stauber: Stauber was born and raised in Duluth and operates Gold Cross ambulance service. He has a master's degree from UMD, where he teaches industrial safety and environmental health.
Stauber sees the current council as anti-business. "I would like to see just the opposite," he said, saying a number of councilors "kowtow to special interests."
Stauber believes the smoking ordinance was handled badly but will abide by the referendum. He strongly supports the Spirit Mountain golf course: "It needs to be done. Do the project," he said. Stauber said he would work to overcome any legal obstacles and said the project did not endanger the environment.
Stauber also favors the McQuade safe harbor project. He would work as an advocate for economic development, pushing for cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor's administration, the port and UMD. However, he said he also had limits, noting that a strip mall on Bayfront, for instance, was not a good idea in his opinion.
Primary: Primary voting was as follows -- Bergson: 4,555, Nelson: 3,682, Stauber: 3,587, Hales: 3,126
Only the at-large race is contested in this year's school board election, with Pati Rolf and Dorothy Neumann running unopposed in their respective districts. Facing off for the two at-large seats are incumbents Laura Condon and Eileen Zeitz Hudelson and former board member Mary Cameron.
Mary Cameron: Cameron has lived in Duluth since age 4. She has worked at UMD since 1986, where she did her undergraduate work; she won a Bush Fellowship to Syracuse University where she completed her master's degree.
Cameron is a supporter of Edison schools and was part of a previous school board that eliminated the district's debt. She supported the district's levy referendum for the specific purposes of reducing class sizes, reducing deficit and promoting programs. She was concerned that those issues be dealt with specifically.
If school closings are required, Cameron would look first at a high school -- possibly East -- and she believes the levy referendum should not be used as an excuse to avoid facing those tough decisions.
However, she said she wouldn't want to touch programs, including art, choir and debate. Cameron emphasizes her negotiating ability, her "passion for education" and her understanding of the needs of at-risk students.
Laura Condon: Condon is a teacher in Proctor who lives in West Duluth. She credits the work done by the existing school board, including cutting $2.6 million from next year's budget, but recognizes that hard decisions on schools may still be coming, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
"To see this (referendum) as a panacea would be foolish," she said.
Condon sees recent events seeking public input as a step toward a long-range plan for the district. From a curriculum standpoint, Condon believes in a focus on the basics with a look at technology.
Condon says she is big on teacher pay for attracting and keeping good employees but is capable of standing firm when money is tight.
Eileen Zeitz Hudelson: Zeitz Hudelson teaches Spanish at UMD, where she has worked for 24 years. She believes the council has unfinished business and hopes to return.
Zeitz Hudelson focuses on curriculum, protecting the "essentials" as well as arts programs. "I want them to have the full scope available to them," she said of Duluth students.
She cites a wonkish depth of understanding on the issues as a primary reason to choose her. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, she said she was pretty sure the district would need to consolidate some schools, although she was also waiting for public input at the time of endorsement interviews.
Despite saying the district is "totally underfunded by the state," she believes the schools are turning out even better students, and she vowed to make do with whatever the state provides.
Primary outcome: No primary was held due to a lack of candidates.
With all the council candidates promising to abide by the referendum, this vote will likely decide the issue.
Anti-ordinance: Opponents of the smoking ordinance, who urge a "no-no" vote on the two relevant question on the ballot, consider this primarily a business issue. Vickie Haugland, owner of Charlie's Club and a leading voice of opposition to the ordinance, says it goes too far, providing no relief for businesses in trouble. She said the $700 fine for violators was "way overboard."
Opponents believe the affected businesses had too little input in the process. Other problems include the potential for lost jobs or cut hours at those businesses that do survive, the potential for lawsuits and concern that changes to the ordinance could render expensive remodeling projects obsolete.
They cite five exemptions under the original ordinance as evidence of harm to businesses.
Opponents are also concerned that the ordinance only applies to Duluth, leaving restaurants in surrounding communities free to siphon off smoking customers.
Pro-ordinance: Proponents of the smoking ban, who urge a "yes-yes" vote on the two questions, consider the issue primarily a health one. They say local ordinances are a step toward bringing the issue to the state level and say tens of thousands of Americans die every year because of secondhand smoke. American Lung Association representatives provided copies of a Phillip Morris study in the Czech Republic that shows even a tobacco company acknowledging health costs from secondhand smoke.
Proponents cite experiences in California and even sales tax figures from Duluth as evidence that businesses are not harmed by smoking bans.
In addition to concerns about customers, proponents believe employees and children should be protected. They say no evidence indicates that ventilation systems reduce the problem, and that the county health department enforcement vehicle is already in place.
The school levy would raise $6 million a year for five years, a total of $30 million, with an increase in property taxes and matching state funds. The head of the state's Department of Revenue says such referendums were anticipated as part of property tax reform and a way of making school districts accountable to local taxpayers.
Anti-levy: Opponents of the levy, calling for a "no" vote, say that promises broken by previous school boards and the lack of specifics on where the money will go this time make trust an issue. While many support reducing class sizes and boosting programs, some fear the money instead will go to settle employee contracts.
Another concern is that the money will be seen as an excuse to avoid consolidation.
Pro-levy: Proponents of the levy, urging a "yes" vote, say the money is needed by the school district -- that even closing five schools would not have solved the budget crisis -- and that the school district has a history of spending money on things the community values.
They say state law dictates the exact wording of the referendum on the ballot and say the budget is tight because of inflation and rising insurance costs, as well as declining enrollment.
After the Budgeteer endorsement interviews, the school gave specifics on where the money would go for a year: reducing class size, cutting the deficit, supporting kindergarten and middle school programming and updating equipment and programming for music, technology, art, and music and physical education specialists.