Praised and criticized, Ness wraps up first year as Duluth mayor

Ask Duluth Mayor Don Ness about the successes he's had during his first year in office and he sighs and looks off into the distance, as if recalling the controversial choices he made last year to recover from nearly $14 million in budget deficits...

Don Ness
Duluth Mayor Don Ness, shown listening to the concerns of Duluth business owner Betty Lou Marsaa last month during a monthly Mayor's Night session, has been in office for a year -- and has had to make some controversial decisions that have won him healthy doses of both praise and criticism. Amanda Hansmeyer /

Ask Duluth Mayor Don Ness about the successes he's had during his first year in office and he sighs and looks off into the distance, as if recalling the controversial choices he made last year to recover from nearly $14 million in budget deficits: closing city buildings, selling land, canceling programs and services, laying off employees and slicing the library and park departments.

At the same time, he imposed new fees for street lighting and sewer overflow-fighting measures, and drew the ire of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty by raising taxes 14 percent during the worst economic crisis in recent history.

Ironically, the often-unpopular decisions Ness made in 2008 earned him recent praise from city residents.

In an informal survey of residents at area bars and restaurants, a common theme arises: "It's probably been the worst time in the world to be mayor," Barbara Carr, an insurance agent, said while eating lunch at Sneakers in the Holiday Center.

"And I think he's doing the best he can under these poor circumstances," added her lunchmate, Cathy Hoffman.


Down at Pizza Luce, 38-year-old Michael Westvaal, a self-described conservative who works at New Page, said he has been impressed with the mayor's performance.

"The hard decisions he's made, the cuts, they're never popular," Westvaal said. "But those tough decisions: Instead of putting them off, he's bit the bullet."

Asked for his take, Ness said that, while his accomplishments are significant: "It's certainly come at a cost and has affected the services that we provide in city government."

Before our eyes the once-baby-faced mayor has quickly aged, often appearing haggard and frustrated.

"He looks like he's aged 50 years in the last year," Kelly Alfini, a 29-year-old social worker, said while at Starbucks. "The poor guy looks really tired."

There have also been a few major flubs. A Ness administration idea to charge for some public safety services, such as putting out fires, became the butt of a Jay Leno joke.

"Isn't that what we have taxes for?" Leno asked on national TV.

The administration quickly pulled the proposal, calling it a mix-up and something that was presented too soon and inaccurately portrayed by the media. But the damage was done. Ness developed a reputation among conservatives as someone who's balancing the budget on the taxpayers' backs.


"He remains reluctant to make the critical and bold changes to city government necessary to resolve our financial situation," said City Councilor Jim Stauber, who campaigned for Ness last year. "He continues to rely on increased fees, new charges for existing programs, creating new programs he can charge for, selling assets, lobbying for state and federal assistance, borrowing to pay off debt and increasing taxes."

When asked to assess the mayor's performance, conservative Councilor Todd Fedora, a frequent Ness critic, said: "Perhaps you should ask the folks who live in Duluth and are paying higher taxes, higher utility rates and fees for just about anything the administration can think of."


Despite the criticisms from the right, in many ways Ness governed from the middle in 2008, if only because he created just as many opponents on the far left -- namely, the public employee unions.

For a politician who entered office saying he wanted to end the combative culture of city politics, he's had very public disputes with the firefighters' union and the city's largest employee union. And his hard line on union issues has drawn fire from members of his own party.

"I do give him low marks for not listening to the unions who represent the workers," said City Councilor Sharla Gardner, a Democrat whose stances are often aligned with the firefighters' union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 66. "I think he can do better and he should do better if we're going to move forward. They can't be part of the solution if they're not given a seat at the table."

The mayor generally abhors conflict and rarely responds to critics directly, preferring what he calls a "thoughtful" response. It's a strategy that's decidedly not politics as usual -- and one of the most obvious departures from the Herb Bergson administration.

Divisive politics practiced by his opponents, Ness says, "impede the public good."


"These factors include overblown rhetoric, a divisive approach, a narrow focus on self-interest [rather] than shared solutions," he said. "These things bother me; they offend me. When folks use these tactics, I see them as an affront to a well-functioning democracy and it's one of the reasons our country finds itself where we are today."

His approach has had varied degrees of success. Moderates embrace it, but his far left and right opponents rarely oblige him by playing along.

"Until we resolve basic issues," said Duluth Central Labor Body president Alan Netland, "there isn't much of a conversation going on."

Those Ness relies on for advice -- including retired Minnesota Power CEO Arend Sandbulte, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and former Duluth Mayor Gary Doty -- have expressed concern about his strategy, Ness said, and they wonder if his opponents are using it against him.

"There have been times throughout the year that I've really questioned if this approach can be successful, or if there's a reason elected officials don't do it this way," Ness said.

The mayor employs his approach in two ways: When the television cameras roll or the interview recorder is on, Ness is almost painfully cautious as he chooses his words, trying to find the best middle ground -- one that shows his position but doesn't offend an opponent.

Behind the scenes, Ness often works hard to control the message, pushing political opponents to raise the level of their discourse and sometimes lashing out when they don't.

When Stauber and Fedora criticized the administration for trying to eliminate a sprinkling allowance on residents' sanitary sewer bills, the mayor sent them e-mails deploring their "scare tactics," saying it undercut his administration's ability to get the community support he needs.


When Stauber later publicly questioned the time the city has taken to investigate two suspended employees, Ness e-mailed his "disappointment in how you handled this."

"I am still not sure what your intent was -- but it clearly was done in a manner that was disrespectful and unproductive," Ness wrote.

Stauber says he has tried to speak privately with the mayor but is often dismissed or patronized.

"I've had to make a public issue out of some things in order to get a response," he said. "When he discounts things I have to say, it's a bit frustrating."

Ness said he hopes to repair damaged relationships with 2008's political opponents but stressed the onus is on them to change.

"I think it will depend on their choosing a different approach," he said.

And if they don't?

"Then we'll continue to experience a lack of progress, and the city will be worse off for it," he said.

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