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Sipress survives challenge to City Council appointment

Joel Sipress' appointment to represent Duluth's 2nd District residents narrowly withstood a challenge Thursday night. Four of eight fellow city councilors voted to stand firm on their decision last week to select Sipress as a replacement for Patr...

Sipress
Joel Sipress' appointment to the Duluth City Council was upheld by a vote during a special council meeting Thursday night. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Joel Sipress' appointment to represent Duluth's 2nd District residents narrowly withstood a challenge Thursday night.

Four of eight fellow city councilors voted to stand firm on their decision last week to select Sipress as a replacement for Patrick Boyle, who left the council to become the newest member of the St. Louis County Board.

It would have taken five votes to reconsider the Feb. 10 resolution that appointed Sipress.

Sipress abstained from the vote and the discussion that led up to it.

Council President Linda Krug acknowledged that the past week had been trying and said it had been "filled with enough innuendo and mud-slinging to keep us all busy."

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But regardless of the fallout, Krug explained why she still supported revisiting the issue.

"Lost in all the noise of this last week is that I called this special meeting for one reason and one reason only: We did not follow the rules we established prior to seating the 2nd District councilor," she said.

"We did not do anything close to ranked-choice voting, as the experts at FairVote Minnesota, Attorney (Gunnar) Johnson and our city clerk have all acknowledged and advised. In fact, we filled the 2nd District vacancy on the basis of a tie. Following our agreed-upon rules, there was no winner. I believe the integrity of this council and this quasi-election demand that we go back to the moment of that tie."

Councilor Jay Fosle said he disagreed with Krug's characterization of the vote to appoint Sipress and stood by its legitimacy.

While Councilor Jennifer Julsrud said she has no doubt that Sipress or any of the three finalists for the seat would serve ably, she said the process used to select him prematurely deprived her and three other councilors who favored Kathy Heltzer as their first-pick of an opportunity to sway the vote.

"For me, this is a matter of justice, because half of the council lost its voice," Julsrud said.

If Sipress had not been declared the victor of a sixth ballot, she said the council would have continued to wrestle with the appointment.

"If you are comfortable silencing half the council, that's your choice, but I would be deeply disappointed," said Julsrud, calling for a revote.

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But Councilor Zack Filipovich said he had consulted with more than 30 people, including past city council members and residents of Duluth's 2nd District, and he still felt strongly that Sipress' appointment should stand.

"Tonight, I will be voting to uphold my vote and the unanimous vote of this council," he said.

The resolution to reconsider Sipress' appointment was supported by Councilors Julsrud, Krug, Emily Larson and Barb Russ.

Voting against it were Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, Sharla Gardner and Howie Hanson.

Krug also addressed concerns that her support for Heltzer's appointment may have been inappropriate. She said that after consulting with City Attorney Johnson, she felt confident she did not have a conflict of interest, yet she expressed regrets for not sharing more information with her peers.

"Should I have disclosed that Kathy is now married to my spouse's aunt? Well, I guess, in hindsight, I should have," she said. "It never even occurred to me. Kathy Heltzer has been a professional colleague of mine for 27 years -- no different, I am guessing, than Councilor Gardner's relationship with Councilor Sipress or any of us and our relationship with any of the three candidates before us. But I missed this one. Gay marriage is still quite new, not even seven months old, and I guess I'm just not used to thinking in those terms. So, councilors, please accept my apologies for not disclosing that."

Councilor Gardner said the debate over the 2nd District appointment had been hurtful, unfair, damaging to council relationships and disrespectful of Sipress.

"I'm not going to nurse any grudges though," she said. "I want to move forward and meet the needs of my district."

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Gardner introduced a resolution requesting that the city look at amending its charter with an eye toward improving how empty council seats are filled in the future. She suggested the council should have the option to call a special election for long-term interim appointments of a year or more in duration, such as Sipress'.

Following Thursday's meeting, a relieved Sipress said he had purposefully avoided personal involvement in the debate about his appointment.

"I wanted to make sure the other eight councilors could work it out among themselves," he said.

But Sipress was eager to take on his new role.

"Now we can focus on getting to work with the people's business as a council," he 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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