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Two options for petty offenses: Fine or work

Mayor Don Ness said Wednesday he might revisit a program that would give people convicted of petty misdemeanors in Duluth the option of providing community service.

Mayor Don Ness said Wednesday he might revisit a program that would give people convicted of petty misdemeanors in Duluth the option of providing community service.

The program almost was put into place late last year before the city and its largest labor union were unable to come to an agreement on it.

The city's chief administrative officer, John Hall, said instead of paying a fine, the violators would be offered the choice of performing menial jobs, such as picking up trash from creek beds, shoveling leaves out of a storm sewer grate or cleaning graffiti.

"All the things we can't afford to do," Hall said. "We worked everything out and thought it was a done deal, and then one day it unraveled."

Hall said St. Louis County judges put a stop to the plan after saying they wanted it to be approved by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers.

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Judge Gerald Martin said the judges voted unanimously to halt the deal because of a number of concerns, among them that they didn't want the community service jobs replacing current ones. In addition, Martin said there was no explanation from the city about how the community service would be monitored to ensure that the work was being done.

Judge Heather Sweetland agreed.

"The city was unable to answer our questions about the issue of supervision," she said.

Sweetland said the judges sent the city a letter in late November or early December requesting that they clear the issues up with AFSCME. But Hall and AFSCME have differing views of what happened after that.

Hall said he met with John Westmoreland, AFSCME Council 5's northern area field director, and told him about the plan.

"He said: 'We'll give it some thought,' " Hall said. "And we never heard back."

Former Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson confirmed that version of events, adding that the city made a promise to the union never to use the community service workers for union jobs.

"It is just a shame this program never got going," he said. "It was a real win-win."

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Westmoreland acknowledged that he met with Hall in early December and was told of the plan, but he told Hall he needed to present the idea to union leaders.

"I told him I am not the president of the local and I do not have the authority to make this call," he said.

AFSCME spokesperson Jennifer Munt also said the union needed the city's assurances that "it would not replace jobs."

"That never happened," she said.

Both said AFSCME wrote a letter to St. Louis County court administrators, saying the union would oppose any program that the union wasn't notified about. Munt said in the past that AFSCME has worked with other government organizations to put similar programs in place across the state, but the local union still hasn't received any assurances that the jobs in Duluth wouldn't be displaced.

Hall disagrees.

"Some of the things [work] that might be done might be also done on occasion by a union worker. But there is no intent to replace union workers," he said. "Could an argument be made that if we didn't have community service workers we would need to hire [full-time] temps? Sure, but we aren't hiring them now and won't later, anyway."

Hall also said the city provided information to the judges that the community service jobs would be supervised.

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Though Ness said he's only had two brief exchanges with Hall about the program and knows little about the program and its history, he thinks it's a good idea.

"I do believe that community service is one of the best ways to restore justice to the community, especially when it comes to minor crime," said Ness. "If we could do that, it would be something we'd support."

Still, Hall didn't seem optimistic that it would happen.

"Other things are now on the front burner, so I can't presume what will happen," he said.

Judges Martin and Sweetland said they'd like to see a plan put in place.

"We used to have a program where people would work through probation, but we don't have it anymore because we don't have the money or the manpower," Sweetland said.

BRANDON STAHL covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at bstahl@duluthnews.com

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