Last month when Mayor Larson arbitrarily decided city titles using the word “chief” should be changed because the word was offensive to indigenous people, the response was loud, divisive, and went national in the news.
A unanimous vote from the city council is needed to change the “Chief Administrative Officer” title as required by the Duluth City Charter. The ordinance was announced in a press conference and was up for a vote at the June Council meeting. As the meeting approached a new statement of purpose was whispered around to city council members – stating the change wasn’t because the word was offensive, but because it was necessary to match the position title in other cities.
Mayor Larson never mentioned this reason during her press conference and hasn’t publically announced this as the reason the change is needed. She sticking with “the word chief is offensive” narrative.
In the June council meeting, one councilor, Derek Medved, voted “no”. When given the chance to speak before the vote, Medved said his vote would be “No” because this issue does not follow his back-to-basics morals and that he wants to “focus on things the council can do to serve the community and make a difference right now.” He also pointed out the different narratives surrounding the vote and suggested he would be open to voting for the amendment in the future if the city presented it as a change to match the titles of city administrators around the state, and if the city was able to first focus on the major issues Duluth is facing right now. The city council then voted to table to the amendment.
This week, the tabled vote was addressed at the end of the July city council meeting. More important than the actual vote was the perspective each councilor took in making their decision. The following summarizes what the councilors discussed before the vote:
Councilor Derek Medved was the first to speak and shared how considering the issues surrounding the vote was very difficult and made him “feel sick”. He repeatedly stated how much he respects the other council members and the administration and that he doesn’t want to damage the good working relationship that he has them, but he can’t ignore what he’s hearing from his constituents. He said that he felt the way the Mayor presented the issue was divisive from the start and intended to make headlines, then the issue was dropped on the city council’s doorstep with the Mayor’s office not open for comment or conversation about the proposed title change. Medved shared that he worked hard to find common ground to support the change and bring together the gap created by the divisive introduction of the change but there was none to be found. He also discussed how another council member told him he “needs to be mindful of how you vote or you’ll jeopardize the relationship with the administration moving forward and for the next three years,” the remainder of his term. Medved thought that the way the Mayor presented the change was irresponsible and politically motivated. He said he thought it could have been fixed if the Mayor would have come to the table. Medved said “Honesty will set you free” and with his vote he’s taking a stand against politics in city government.
Councilor Joel Sipress spoke next and addressed Derek directly, stating that regardless of how he voted, it wouldn’t damage their working relationship and the mutual respect they share. Sipress also agreed 100% that the Mayor’s handling of the proposed change was “terrible”, saying “she left the council holding the bag” and “it could have been handled better.”
Councilor Janet Kennedy took the next few minutes to share how she felt this issue had gotten out of hand saying, “it’s just a name change”. Councilor Zack Filipovich quickly agreed with Kennedy offering no new personal thoughts on the issue.
Newcomer, Councilor Terese Tomanek looked at the issue through the lens of “who it helps and who it hurts”. She felt it helps the Indigenous Community feel important and that they have a voice. She didn’t feel like it would hurt anyone.
Councilor Arik Forsman used his time to say he felt “the Mayor isn’t the only one playing politics on this” a snide comment directed at Councilor Medved. Later in the discussion in response to Councilor Tomanek he said that he heard from some that this vote not passing would hurt Mayor Larson “it would be egg on her face” and “people are hoping it fails to hurt her.”
Councilor Roz Randorf agreed with Medved, saying that she felt something was “amiss” with the way this came about and the fact that the Indigenous Community had no input on the issue until the very end was “curious”. She thought that the council is being forced to make a single vote on two issues – one a name change request, and the other an issue of sensitivity. She said it’s not right now, and it was not right in the beginning.
Council Vice President Renee Van Nett said she didn’t think this issue was that hard and the uncomfortable feeling the councilors have had during the meeting is what people like her feel “every second of their lives”. She said the argument that this was distracting the council from city business wasn’t true, city business is still getting done. Van Nett also thought that if the Chief Administrative Officer wanted to change his title, why not let him. She said regardless of the result tonight, she just wanted to get the vote done and be done with this issue.
Council President Gary Anderson wrapped the discussion with a few comments. He agreed that the name change request was not handled well from the start, but that he doesn’t expect perfection from anyone, including the administration. He thought the issue has been “one heckuva distraction” and shared that a constituent once told him that “sitting on the fence is very painful”. Anderson shared that between the two sides, only one would get “hurt”, and that would be indigenous people if the change was not made. Those opposing the change would not be hurt if the name changed. He said the vote is “important, symbolic, practical, and political” and “we are a political body”.
While the city council and city administration may be a “political body”, they shouldn’t be partisan and they should strive to present issues in a way that doesn’t create tension, division, and extravagant media attention. Nearly half of the council agreed that Mayor Larson messed up when introducing the change, and they weren’t thrilled in having to clean up that mess.
The silver lining of this highly publicized issue is that we got to see the thought process of our councilors. Councilors Medved and Randorf took a critical look at what was presented and what it really means to vote “yes” or “no” on this issue.
The “let’s just get it done” crowd, Kennedy, Filipovich, and Van Nett, as well as the “who does it help/hurt” people, Tomanek and Anderson seemed to gloss over the ramifications of voting on the name change without Mayor Larson publicly denouncing the statement of purpose of the word being offensive and requesting the change to match other cities. Voting “yes” because the word is considered offensive sets a precedent that would encourage other frivolous, controversial, symbolic votes to detract from important city business. It encourages more divisiveness, more headline-making votes, and more wasted time on taxpayer dollars. It’s too easy to waste time on frivolous things when there is a $40 million dollar budget deficit elephant in the room.
The most troubling comments came from Council Forsman. All city councils work under a code of civility. The code, as it appears on the City of Duluth’s website says:
We know that when we have civility, we get civic engagement and because we can’t make each other civil and we can only work on ourselves, we state that today I will: pay attention, listen, be inclusive, not gossip, show respect, seek common ground, repair damaged relationships, use constructive language, and take responsibility.Tools of Civility
Forsman’s snide comments directed at Medved did not show respect, seek common ground, or use constructive language. His comments about hearing people were hoping the vote would fail to hurt Emily is gossip. It showed a level of immaturity that is unbecoming of a council member, but sadly one that mirrors the behavior of the Mayor who has taken to posting snarky posts on Twitter. Forsman should take note of how Councilor Sipress, who voted for the name change, responded to Medved, with the class and kindness of a true professional.
The council failed to pass the ordinance when Medved abstained from the vote. Mayor Larson responded in saying “I really think the title should have been changed. And you know, my job is to keep on keepin’ on”. She also stated that she thought they did a good job with a complicated topic and that the city is “far ahead of its time”.
The councilors who took a deeper look at this issue listened to their constituents and really considered what their vote means (regardless of what their vote was) deserve credit for doing an exceptional job as an elected official. We can only hope the other councilors will learn that their Yeses and Nos should not come as easy as answering a cheesy Facebook quiz. Each vote deserves serious and thoughtful consideration. Councilors need to remember they are speaking for all of us, if they don’t “feel sick” considering a divisive ordinance like this, they are doing it wrong.