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Mayoral candidates criticize Bergson, answer questions and mostly agree

Duluth's mayoral race got another earlier-than-ever jumpstart Friday with the first candidates' debate. It's still about two weeks before citizens can officially file to run, but moderators for the local grassroots political group Progressive Act...

Duluth's mayoral race got another earlier-than-ever jumpstart Friday with the first candidates' debate.

It's still about two weeks before citizens can officially file to run, but moderators for the local grassroots political group Progressive Action were in City Hall on Friday evening, politely grilling five candidates for an hour and a half.

Announced candidates Charlie Bell, Meg Bye, Greg Gilbert, Don Ness and Jim Pratt all attended and responded to the event's civil decorum with almost solemn responses.

Aside from a couple of quiet digs by Bell about a lack of leadership from current politicians, apparently aimed at city councilors Ness and Gilbert and Mayor Herb Bergson, the candidates rarely responded to each other -- except to express agreement.

When asked why she wanted to be mayor, Bye, a former city councilor and human rights officer, said, "I really understand how this city works and how it should work.''

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A change from how things have been done in City Hall was a recurring theme by the candidates. They intently took turns placing much of the blame on Bergson, his hiring freeze and alleged emphasis on everything but streets, parks and public safety.

Ness said his campaign has a slogan, "The Duluth Advantage," based on better communication, infrastructure, emphasis on natural beauty, work force and economic development.

Bell, a community activist and businessman, said what Duluth needs is someone with real-life experience in economic development, planning and finance.

Pratt, a financial adviser, said, "I'm a citizen running for mayor of Duluth."

The candidates answered questions prepared by Progressive Action's steering committee and the audience. Progressive Action has more than 300 members on its e-mail list and is dedicated to transparent government, environmental issues and social and economic justice.

Questions addressed topics such as barrels in Lake Superior, the city's role in climate control, labor, race relations and responsible development. The candidates also were asked to weigh in on topics such as the Great Lakes Aquarium and retiree health care liability.

On health care, Ness touted his leadership role in establishing the independent retiree health care task force, support of implementing those solutions, then pushing for compromises in new union contracts.

But Bell said no real progress has been made. He also said he would not support higher property taxes to help pay down the $309 million liability.

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When the issue of the Lakewalk extension and controversial Beacon Point development arose, the candidates again tended to blame Bergson, as well as his predecessor, for "dropping the ball,'' as two of them described it.

"I think City Hall is dysfunctional," said Bell, who lost the mayoral race to Bergson in 2003. "The right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. We need people with experience in economic development and planning -- not people who talk about leadership."

Bell said City Hall should become more streamlined,and should focus hiring in places such as city planning and business development -- an answer that seemed to have broad support among the candidates.

Gilbert said it's time Duluth returns to the basics of police, fire and public service.

"The city should not be owning anything or running anything," Bell said in a supposed jab at traditionally cash-strapped assets, such as the zoo, aquarium and golf courses.

Nearly all the candidates fully supported the Great Lakes aquarium and its board and management's successful recent effort to make it more financially viable. Pratt suggested that the community "start to unsell it" or begin an effort to end the aquarium's string of bad publicity.

All said they had plans to make the city more environmentally friendly and reduce carbon dioxide. Bye said the city shouldn't refurbish or rebuild another public building unless it's a "green building," using recycled and energy-efficient materials.

It would be difficult to accuse Progressive Action of jumping the gun in this campaign. At least four mayoral candidates have some sophisticated political infrastructure in place for a busy summer. They have campaign headquarters, wads of cash, dozens of volunteers and prepared print and TV ads.

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Bergson's surprise decision to not seek a second term, coupled with national trends toward earlier campaigning, have fueled a competitive atmosphere three months before the primary, local political observers said.

Dr. Charles Gessert of Progressive Action said the organization plans to endorse a candidate in late summer or early fall.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218)

279-5502 or by e-mail at chamilton@duluthnews.com .

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