Duluth City Councilors Point Fingers As Vote To Remove ‘Chief’ From Job Title Fails
DULUTH, Minn. – Built-up emotions and frustrations poured out from city councilors during Monday night’s council meeting involving an ordinance that called for the removal of the word “chief” from the Chief Administrative Officer title.
The ordinance was pushed publicly by Mayor Emily Larson in June who said the word “chief” is offensive to the Indigenous community and removing “chief” from job titles is a way to be more inclusive while using less language that is “rooted in hurt and intentional marginalization.”
The original Statement of Purpose behind the ordinance read as follows:
“The City of Duluth strives to be a City that is reflective of our community and deeply rooted in fairness and equity. As a City that is progressing in many ways, we seek to elevate and foster cultural responsiveness by proactively removing language that is harmful, misrepresentative, and derogatory. As a visible sign of mutual respect, we propose revisions to policy and job titles that are aligned with gender and culturally affirming and people-first language. Together, we can be a city where all residents are seen, heard, valued, and embraced.”
That language behind the ordinance didn’t sit well with Councilor Derek Medved – a CAO himself for a group of convenience stores — when the ordinance was first presented, so councilors agreed to table the vote, as a unanimous vote is needed to change the title of CAO because that title is in the city charter.
But sometime between then and Monday night’s city council meeting July 20, the Statement of Purpose was drastically changed by the mayor’s administration to reflect a simple title change from CAO to City Administrator.
“In order to better reflect the industry’s professional standards and generally accepted professional title for the highest ranking administrative leadership position in Mayor-Council form of government, this action serves to retitle the position from Chief Administrative Officer to City Administrator. Originally titled as “Administrative Assistant” and subsequently updated to “Chief Administrative Officer”, this would be the third change to the position’s title since 1957. Each change has been made to address changing professional terminology, inclusivity and modernity,” according the updated Statement of Purpose.
Many councilors acknowledged Monday that the ordinance was handled poorly with the public, especially by bypassing the opinions from the city’s Indigenous Commission, which spoke out at the council meeting about that handling while also unanimously agreeing the word “chief” is offensive when used in the CAO title and the Chief Financial Officer title.
“Being an Indigenous Commission member, I heard about it from Facebook,” said member Kassie Helgerson to councilors when talking about when she first heard about the ordinance. “We are here to help advise in any issues relating to Indigenous community in Duluth and such we should be included in these discussion from the beginning not from the end,” Helgerson said. “This is something that has great meaning to us as tribal people, and it’s not a term that we would throw around. It’s something very important and the ‘chief’ to us is our leader. It’s someone that takes into account the good of all of our people and someone that we all trust,” Helgerson said.
Councilor Medved said when the Charter Commission unanimously approved the name change of CAO to be voted on by the council for ultimate approval, he said things changed. “When it hit the mayor’s office, it had a spin on it. The first [Statement of Purpose] came out very hard with very hard language and I will put the mayor on the line for that and say that was her doing and they chose their words carefully and how they wanted to present it to council. It made headlines. It brought a lot of division to our community and the door was closed. The mayor’s office, the administration was not open for comment — not open to talk further about it with councilors. It was on our doorstep.”
Medved went on to say, “This, backing all the way back to the mayor’s office, was proposed with division in mind. And we could have fixed that point blank if the mayor and all of us were on the same page to have a better conversation. So, right off the bat, this failed to, in my mind, to gain legs and have unanimous support in our community. If it was presented with an appropriate beginning, it would have been something I could have supported,” Medved said.
Longtime Councilor Joel Sipress echoed some of Medved’s concerns on how Mayor Larson handled the issue.
“I agree with you 100% percent that the mayor’s handling of this proposal has been terrible and that we, as a council, have been left holding the bag for something that could have been handled much better and would have never had created the controversy that it has created in this community,” Sipress said.
Meanwhile, other councilors weighed in on what they say was an unfortunate way to go about a sensitive issue for some that wasn’t communicated well to the public but ultimately fell on the council to deal with.
“So we have these two completely separate ideas and issues that we’re talking about tonight and you can see the division and even the hurt and the anger and the passion that we’re hearing from all sides. And we’ve almost made this complex than it really should have been,” said Councilor Roz Randorf.
“This is a position that Mr. Schuchman holds, and he’s choosing to have a name change. Quite frankly, that’s all it is. He can choose to be called a chief or not be called a chief. He’s choosing not to be,” said Janet Kennedy.
“If we don’t pass this, there are members of our community who are going to feel hurt, disrespected and unheard,” said Council President Gary Anderson, who also acknowledged the ordinance was not handled properly.
“I think it becomes a much bigger deal if we don’t pass tonight and I know there are some valid points about how it was handled. I’ll be honest, I don’t think the mayor is the only one playing politics on this and I’ll leave it at that. And I urge all councilors to support this,” said Councilor Arik Forsman.
“Can we just get this done … let’s just move forward,” said Councilor Renee Van Nett, who is of Native American heritage.
But in the end, the ordinance failed to unanimously pass after Medved abstained.
Medved also said part of his vote against the ordinance was also rooted from the way he says he was being influenced behind the scenes, including from an unnamed council member who he said told him he needed to be mindful that his vote against the ordinance would jeopardize his relationship with the mayor and administration moving forward.
“I think that is completely irresponsible. It’s political and all done in the wrong manor,” Medved said.
FOX 21 reached out Mayor Larson’s office through Public Information Officer Kate Van Daele before the council meeting to get an official clarification on why the Statements of Purpose had changed, but that request was not met as of Monday night.
Meanwhile, Mayor Larson has already changed the Chief Financial Officer title to Finance Director because the CFO title is not in the city charter and therefore doesn’t need a council vote to make that happen.
There are no immediate plans to change the titles of police and fire chief.