Reporter's view: Remember these truths about role of city councilor

Returning from a City Council candidate forum this election season, it struck me that many of the people in the audience -- and, indeed, some of the candidates -- had no idea what city councilors do. The average voter probably doesn't know, eithe...

Returning from a City Council candidate forum this election season, it struck me that many of the people in the audience -- and, indeed, some of the candidates -- had no idea what city councilors do. The average voter probably doesn't know, either, so I offer this guide.

When candidates say, "I'll bring jobs to this city," they'd be better off opening a business of their own. The City Council plays almost no direct role in economic development. Local government-based economic development is largely in the hands of the mayor, and there's a limit to what he can do. He can't wave his hand and magically bring in a giant business.

Think about it: What direct roles can local government play in stimulating business growth? Tax increment financing? Yes. Tax breaks? At times, yes, but that's mostly a role for state and federal government.

A city councilor bringing in big-level employers? Not likely. Why? Because the council is largely reactionary. About 90 percent to 95 percent of the time, the city administration proposes something, and the council either votes it up, down or tweaks it a bit and then votes it up or down. Councilors occasionally will bring up their own proposals, but they are part-time legislators who have full-time jobs. When they have time to be councilors, it's most often spent in hours-long meetings or in responding to constituent complaints about things like crummy streets.

Speaking of which, the City Council has almost no role in fixing your crummy streets. The mayor's proposal to repair up to 100 miles in five years was overwhelmingly passed by the council this year and puts future councils in a position to continue passing it because there will be public outcry if they don't.


So when a candidate says, "I'll fix your streets," what he or she means is (without probably even realizing it), "I'll vote to continue supporting the mayor's plan because I really have no other choice."

What about when a candidate says we should tap into the casino-generated Community Investment Trust Fund to pay for operations? Sorry, but the mayor's tapping into that to pay for his streets plan. So, unless a dire emergency comes up, the rest of that money isn't going anywhere.

Is a candidate opposed to increasing taxes? Fine. But ask that candidate what he or she would cut to make up the revenue. The city gets its revenue largely through taxes, Local Government Aid (LGA) and fees. Because no candidate will advocate for raising fees, and because LGA is out of councilors' hands, what might they cut if they won't raise taxes? If "nothing" is the answer then that candidate doesn't understand city budgets.

On utility fees: The Department of Public Works tells the City Council every year something along the lines of, "We need to increase fees just to maintain the status quo with our infrastructure." So if a councilor doesn't want to increase fees, then how will that person pay for those repairs?

Many candidates say they dislike that money goes to tourism-related groups like Sister Cities or the Great Lakes Aquarium instead of to core services like parks and street repair. But by state law, tourism tax money has to go to tourism-related groups like Sister Cities and the aquarium. Want it to go to our parks and streets instead? Too bad; that would be illegal.

Council candidates often seem to think unions and city employees get too much in salaries and benefits, etc. But they have no control over this. You know how much negotiating a councilor does on union contracts? None. Once a contract is settled, the council either votes to approve it or not, and councilors will vote to approve it every time. Why? Because the city administration spent months of time and thousands in taxpayer dollars to negotiate the deal. To vote "no" would be to send it back for more time and more money in negotiations.

"Our government should be more business-friendly," candidates say. Sorry, but the mayor has beaten them to the punch by reforming the Building Safety office and by coming up with a new zoning code.

The City Council should always buy local when it buys anything, right? Wrong. By law, if the city gets state or federal money to buy something, it has to use vendors who are not just in the city of Duluth. Besides, sometimes a local vendor sells a product at an amount far higher than, say, a Twin Cities vendor. How would you prefer your tax dollars be spent?


No matter how good a councilor's ideas, remember: That person is only one vote of nine. And Duluth city councilors aren't famous for agreeing with each other.

Brandon Stahl covers Duluth City Hall for the News Tribune. He published a version of this commentary originally at his BUZZ Duluth blog at He can be reached at .

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