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In Duluth, Minn., Mayor Don Ness Made City Government Boring Again

Our hour on how America’s mayors have become some of our best problem solvers drew thoughts and comments from residents of all kinds of cities and towns, both big and small. Whatever your mayor, it seems, you’ve got things to say about him or her. One the cities that drew the most interesting and open-hearted support was Duluth, Minn., currently led by Mayor Don Ness of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He’s been mayor of the Northland city of more than 86,000 since 2008, and he won raves from our callers and online commenters. We called his office to see just what he was doing right up there on the shores of Lake Superior.

What drew you to run for mayor of Duluth?

“I served on the city council for eight years — I was first elected at 25, served 8 years and saw a lot of energy wasted on personality politics, people being distracted by trivial matters that consumed a great deal of our time and energy while at the same time the biggest issues and problems were being ignored. In 2007,  we had a very competitive race — we had 12 people running, including the then incumbent who failed.”

What do you see as your successes in office?

“The city of Duluth, it’s a strong mayor system — it’s unusual for the state of Minnesota — just us and St. Paul. So I had a lot to do right away. When I came in, the retiree health care system threatened to bankrupt the city. It was an unfunded liability, $380 million and rising, and we had just been addressing that at the margin. So as Mayor, I came in and said we need to address the fundamentals of this and move the retirees from a hundred different varieties of healthcare — some of which were established in 1983 and had 50-cent co-pays on name-brand prescriptions — we prevailed on that and cut our liability in half. Instead of $380 million closing in on $400, we’re now at $180 million.”

What about being mayor do you enjoy?

“I think the position of mayor is the best position in American politics. You’re in a position that you’re close to the problems. You can see the problem, develop a strategy to address it, and implement it in a relatively short amount of time, and not be distracted by or undercut by partisan politics or entrenched or well-funded narrow interests that are, in my mind running the government at the federal or state level.”

A lot of our listeners seemed fixed on quality-of-life issues as mayoral issues worth praising. Are there things that  you’ve done while in office that fit that concept?

“I took office in January 2008, right as the world was imploding, the financial world was imploding, and the city of Duluth was on the front end of the pain that was being felt by local governments across the country. Because of the difficult decisions that we made — kind of addressing the problems at their core — people are more confident and optimistic about our city’s future. It’s extraordinarily gratifying when you come to work and your primary purpose is to try to make the city a better place to live. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes it doesn’t work out and you just try everything you can. As mayor, you have a tremendous amount of latitude to try and experiment and implement without political problems getting in the way.”

If you had someone to look back at your two terms as mayor, what would you want them to remember? 

“For the first two-and a-half, three years it was mostly solving deficits, these retiree health care problems, we were being sued by the Federal government to address sanitary overflows: these were problems that had been hanging over our city for many, many years. We had to address those problems so that they didn’t continue to occur. Only when we worked through that could we could start to implement some of the other, more quality-of-life type of projects. We’re working toward 100 miles of single-track mountain biking system within our city and we want to be the premiere trail city in America. You cant rally support for a goal or initiative like that unless you have successfully fixed the biggest problems facing the city. It’s difficult to gain a public support or support on the city council to be behind a trail system if you still have untreated sewage going into Lake Superior.

Duluth was designated in the early ’80s one of the most distressed cities in the nation. We had some of those deep-seated Rust Belt problems. And while the city had set a new course, and kind of pulled ourselves out of that, there was this lingering sense of pessimism that our city was just stuck with these problems. A sense of almost helplessness resignation that we’re just going to have to live with these problems. I think the one thing that I’m proud of is that, through both problem solving, as well as kind of setting some ambitious goals for our communities and folks seeing the progress, is that there is a renewed sense of optimism and confidence which then translates into further investment in their homes, or businesses, or volunteer efforts in community organizations that are driving some of the cool quality of life improvements. I think that’s part of it. Maybe the other thing is that we’ve made a focus on city operations.

When I ran for mayor, one of my goals was to make city government boring again, because it had been playing out on the front page of the paper, you know, personality conflicts kind of defined the government. So we had a period of taking ownership and getting to the point where we have a stable budget. We don’t want city government to be on the front pages or having the personality conflicts playing out b/c that affects people’ s perception of the city and how things get done here.”

You can hear On Point in northern Minnesota on Wisconsin Public Radio’s KUWS 91.3. Tell us more about your city or town mayor in the comments, on Facebook or @OnPointRadio.

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