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Ranked-choice voting, council pay will be on fall ballot in Duluth

Two more questions will appear on the ballot when Duluth voters head to the polls in November. At a special meeting on Friday, the Duluth City Council approved putting questions about ranked-choice voting and councilor pay to the public. That's o...

Two more questions will appear on the ballot when Duluth voters head to the polls in November.

At a special meeting on Friday, the Duluth City Council approved putting questions about ranked-choice voting and councilor pay to the public. That's on top of another question regarding sales of alcohol in Duluth's Lakeside and Lester Park neighborhoods that already had been placed on the ballot.

Ranked-choice voting

After lengthy debate both late into the night Monday and through Friday's lunch hour, councilors at last agreed on how to ask voters whether they want Duluth city offices to be filled using a ranked-choice voting system in the future.

In June 2014, the same council had declined to support a resolution instructing the Duluth Charter Commission to start down the path toward potentially adopting a ranked-choice voting system.

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Undeterred, advocates launched a petition drive, collecting more than 3,000 signatures. Of that total, the city clerk's office verified 2,036 as those of eligible voters in the city - well over the 1,606-signature threshold required to bring the issue to a referendum.

Even though a number of City Council members made it clear they personally do not support a shift to ranked-choice voting, they were required to put the decision to a binding citywide vote that could change the charter.

Ranked-choice voting enables people to support multiple candidates in order of preference. With a ranked-choice system, voters are asked to pick their first-, second- and third-choice candidates to serve in public office. The first-choice votes are then tallied, with the lowest-placing candidates eliminated one by one - and the secondary votes of the losing candidates' supporters are applied to the remaining field until a winner emerges.

The question local supporters proposed through their petition drive was not clear enough to satisfy 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress, however. On Monday, he called for the term "ranked-choice voting" on the ballot to be replaced by the term "instant runoff voting" for single-seat elections, such as the mayor's race, and "single transferrable vote" for two-seat elections, such as the At Large City Council race,

"By voting yes, voters will actually be voting for two distinct voting systems, not one," he contended.

But supporters of ranked-choice voting objected to Sipress' efforts to reword the question to be put to voters.

Andrew Beeman, who collected signatures for the petition, said: "I really believe that ... the wording can affect the outcome of the (referendum) election."

At Large Councilor Linda Krug, who supports ranked-choice voting, accused her peers of superimposing new language in an effort to confuse voters and prompt them to reject the proposed change in election method.

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On Friday, the council, with Jay Fosle absent, voted unanimously to adopt compromise language asking voters: "Shall the Duluth City Charter be amended to adopt ranked-choice voting, also known as single transferrable vote, as the method for electing the mayor and the city councilors without a separate primary election and with ballot format and rules for counting votes to be adopted by ordinance? Yes or No?"

Sipress expressed misgivings but went along, saying: "I'll be voting in favor of this in spite of my deep reservations with this ballot language. I'll be voting in favor of it out of respect to those individuals in our community who signed a petition with this language, and on that basis, I will be supporting this language, flawed as it is."

City Council pay

On Monday night, the Duluth City Council failed to adequately support an ordinance that would have changed the way that councilor pay is determined. All nine members of the council would have had to vote in favor of the measure in order to amend Duluth's city charter.

But two councilors objected: Howie Hanson and Fosle, representing Duluth's 4th and 5th districts, respectively.

On Friday, the council alternatively voted 7-1, with Fosle absent and Hanson dissenting, to put the matter to a citywide vote in November.

At present, City Council pay is spelled out specifically in the city charter. It can be changed only via a unanimous vote of the city council or by a citywide referendum vote.

The last time councilors received a hike in pay was 1999, and their current rate of compensation is $833 per month (the equivalent of $9,966 per year).

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As 3rd District Councilor Sharla Gardner observed, it's politically challenging for a sitting council to give itself a raise. If passed, the measure voters will consider in November could empower the city Charter Commission to periodically review council pay and recommend adjustments as it sees fit. Those recommendations would then go to the City Council, where they could be adopted as long as two-thirds of the body approves.

"This amendment, if it's passed, will actually take the politics out of councilor pay and put it into the hands of an objective body - the Charter Commission - and allow us to at least have the fee and the pay of the council looked at in an objective manner, and not have people afraid to vote for it because perhaps there would be political consequences," Gardner said.

She noted that Mayor Don Ness supports the proposed change.

Hanson weighed in against it on Friday

"I will not be supporting this resolution with a lot of pride," Hanson declared. "I have found the stipend is very fair, in fact excessive."

Krug cautioned against mischaracterizing the measure before the council.

"This resolution does not increase councilor pay. It puts in place a process ... and I'm supportive of it," she said.

Political fireworks finale

In the course of debate, Hanson said he considers representing his district on the City Council a public service.

"Let's call a spade a spade here," he said. "We increased the (mayor's salary) effective at the beginning at the next mayoral term ... and this is the political payback to councilors. It was part of an agreement that was made."

Gardner denied any such deal with the mayor and asked for an apology.

"It is very disappointing to me that I would be accused of something so low. That is not how I do politics. That is questioning my honor and my integrity, and I find that very unacceptable," she said.

Sipress called Hanson out, saying: "I find it interesting to have a certain councilor claim publicly here today that he believes he is overpaid, when that same councilor shared with me privately in the past that he is underpaid as a councilor. I also find it interesting that that same councilor is running for mayor right now.

"And that's a perfect example of why we have to take the politics out of council pay," Sipress said.

Hanson sought to respond, but Council President Emily Larson noted that he had spoken twice on the resolution already, and per council rules could speak again only if councilors voted to suspend the rules and allow for a third round of comments.

Hanson made such a motion, but it failed for a lack of support, and the resolution went to a vote without further comment.

When asked after the meeting about Sipress' account of him flip-flopping on the issue of council pay, Hanson denied ever claiming he had been underpaid.

"I never said that. That's challenging my integrity," Hanson said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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