The outlier: Jay Fosle and the politics of attendance

John Ramos

Duluth City Councilor, Fifth Council District -  Jay Fosle.  Photo Credit: John Ramos
Duluth City Councilor, Fifth Council District - Jay Fosle. Photo Credit: John Ramos

The council retreat

The Duluth city council held their annual retreat on March 26, 2016, in a conference room at the Holiday Inn. The purpose of the retreat is to allow councilors to bond and learn more about each other’s priorities in a relaxed setting. This year, the agenda also included an update on the city’s streets. Eight of nine city councilors were present—four of them newly elected, and four who had been serving for two years. Also present were city attorney Gunnar Johnson, chief administrative officer Dave Montgomery and two facilitators.
The absent city councilor was Fifth District councilor Jay Fosle, who represents West Duluth. Fosle is in his ninth year on the council, making him by far the senior member. Though he wasn’t at the retreat in person, he certainly was in spirit, as discussion pertaining to his attendance record took up a significant portion of the day. Not only was Fosle missing the retreat, he had missed all six council agenda sessions held in 2016, which greatly concerned some of his colleagues. Though attendance at agenda sessions is not required, most councilors attend them regularly—including Fosle, before 2016.
Councilor Barb Russ kicked off the discussion. “I wish Jay could have been here today. I think he has a lot to offer, and it seems this year that he’s sort of drifting further away from a relationship with the rest of us, not attending agenda sessions. And I’m not being critical. I don’t know why he’s not been able to be there….But I do think that we need to…focus on the relationships with each other.”
Council president Zack Filipovich said, “It’s hard to pick on one person, and that’s Jay, [but] at our last council meeting…he said, ‘YOU guys are having YOUR retreat.’”
“Right,” said Russ.
“Well, this is our retreat, and it’s everyone’s retreat,” said Filipovich. “And of course one can disagree on different issues, because we’re all different people….I don’t read anything into Jay’s not being here as anything other than he has family obligations or something like that. He didn’t tell me why he’s not coming, but…I just think it’s important to have these discussions, to kind of know where we’re coming from.”
Councilor Howie Hanson was irritable. ”I think, when we look back [in] ten years, that we’re going to remember that this meeting was a lot about one of our team members not being in the room. For me, that’s a big issue. That’s underlying a lot of what’s going on here, and I’ll use [a] dumbed-down sports analogy [to explain it]….We’re going to do all this good work here and reach all this consensus, we’re going to reach all this understanding and building trust and relationships, and one person is not going to be here, and is going to put their skates on for the big East game next week, and he’s going to be dangling with the puck, doing all of his little things, creating all this team disruption, when we’re all trying to hold hands and have this system, this unit of effortness [sic] that is going to try to take out East…and it’s very frustrating. It’s not going to work.”
New councilor Em Westerlund said, “I don’t know how he feels. I don’t get the sense that there’s a desire to have a relationship…or to participate in the way that I think the rest of us are—trying to show up and really be transparent and proactive.”
Not everyone was critical. With the exception of Westerlund, all of the new councilors spoke up in support of Fosle. Noah Hobbs said, “How Councilor Fosle chooses to conduct his business is his [business], but I’d much rather be interested in moving us forward and having a conversation with the eight of us that are here. It’s somewhat unproductive and unfair for him, so I’d appreciate if we could move on.”
New councilor Gary Anderson said, “We’re learning how to work together, [and] we are very much going to have disagreements, but [it’s important] that we continue to…talk with each other and not about each other.”
New councilor Elissa Hansen said, “I do think that however Councilor Fosle chooses to participate is his process….That’s how I look at it. We all process things differently, but we come to the information together as city council members.”
And CAO Montgomery, in an eloquent defense that surprised me because he could just as easily have said nothing, said, “There’s been a lot of conversation about team and the group, and yet…in some ways, this is not a team….This is a group of nine individuals who represent completely separate constituencies….Each of you comes to this through completely different pathways and completely different motivations, and you have completely different interests….It very well could be that Jay’s participation level or Jay’s attendance or Jay’s interaction is a conscious choice of what motivates him, as he perceives his role as a councilor. And those motivations are just as valid as all of your motivations. And so I think you want to be careful not to try to squeeze Jay into each of your individual and collective views of what a councilor should be or how they should participate….Maybe Jay is viewing his role on this council as, ‘I need to be the outlier’….You want to be careful that you don’t…feel like he has to conform to all the other norms that this group has.”
At that point, I thought the Fosle-bashing was over. But Howie Hanson couldn’t let it go. “My point was to acknowledge the disruption factor. When this destructive member comes into that body, where that body is commissioned to do some serious governmental work, the whole climate changes…It’s…hard when I’m being distracted when other people are having all this infighting for these petty issues, and I think that’s one of the big challenges for this council, is to not let those petty issues…encumber our ability to perform our duties to the highest level.”
And Barb Russ, who started the whole thing by saying she was “not being critical,” had a few more points to make, too. “The only thing I find to be almost disrespectful, and it’s disrupting, is this: He’s not coming to the agenda session, doesn’t ask any questions there, so he shows up Monday night and then he’s got, like, he’s shooting five questions at Dave, where those should have been asked at the agenda session or via email if he couldn’t make it there. So that’s what gets to be kind of annoying for me.”
So, to recap the main points: Fosle was disruptive, destructive, disrespectful, petty, annoying. By their own admission, nobody knew why Fosle was missing meetings, but the assumption seemed to be that he was missing them to make life difficult for everybody else.

The missing meeting myth

In criticizing Fosle for missing meetings, his colleagues were building on a narrative that had been established several months earlier. Fosle, as it happens, is the only city councilor who is not a member of the DFL party. He belongs to no party. In 2015, the DFL spent a considerable amount of time and resources, by city council standards, attempting to unseat him. On September 28, 2015, the myth of a Fosle who frequently misses meetings was born.
On that day, the city council was discussing bicycle lanes. In anticipation of the upcoming major Superior Street reconstruction, they were debating possible locations for a trans-city bike lane. The issue stirred great community interest. Thirty-nine people signed up to speak on the issue. Councilors considered three separate resolutions. The meeting lasted almost five hours.
Before the issue came to a vote, Councilor Fosle left the meeting. It is not unusual for councilors to leave meetings early, and rarely does anyone notice. But Janet Kennedy, Fosle’s DFL-backed opponent for the Fifth District, certainly noticed. The following day, on the “Janet Kennedy for City Council” Facebook page, she wrote:

Most of you know that I am not one to get on Facebook and write something unless there is a real need for attention. Last night’s meeting was packed full of bike enthusiasts, downtown business owners, community members, community leaders, baby boomers, Gen X, and millennials.
As I left to get home to live stream the remainder of the meeting....I was very disappointed to see that District 5 City Councilor Jay Fosle was no longer there. That is very concerning to me because it is not the first time he has chosen to leave or not be present during very important decisions….I find it disrespectful to the people in the audience, the people at home live streaming, city staff, as well as other councilors who give their time.

The fact is that the outcome would not have been changed however Fosle voted—votes on the three resolutions were 6-2, 7-1, and 8-0. But Kennedy’s Facebook post was widely shared and repeated by the DFL machine. Within weeks, the myth that Fosle had a history of missing meetings was firmly established—which meant that when he did begin to miss meetings, in 2016, his colleagues were primed to interpret it as a recurring pattern.
In fact, if one looks at city council minutes for 2014 and 2015, Councilor Fosle missed one regular council meeting. Three councilors—Zack Filipovich, Howie Hanson and Joel Sipress—didn’t miss any. Barb Russ and Sharla Gardner missed one meeting each. City councilor (now mayor) Emily Larson missed two meetings, Jennifer Julsrud missed three, and DFL stalwart Linda Krug missed four. Why is Councilor Fosle the only one who’s criticized?
If one looks at the entire eight-year span of Fosle’s city council career (2008-2015), he has missed three regular meetings. Krug, who only served four of those eight years, missed five. Julsrud, Gardner, and Greg Gilbert missed four meetings apiece. The most egregious meeting-misser during that period, by far, was Garry Krause, who missed ten (Figure 1).
(I have intentionally omitted special city council meetings from my analysis. Special meetings are typically called for time-sensitive administrative purposes, such as certifying election results or voting to issue capital improvement bonds that have already been approved by the council. Special meetings often take place during the middle of the day, and they rarely last more than ten minutes; the special meeting of July 10, 2014, lasted two. Fosle has missed quite a few special meetings over the years, as have other councilors.)

Attack of the DFL!

The intensity of the DFL campaign against Fosle surprised me. Though his grouchy populist-conservative outlook annoys the DFL on many issues, his one independent vote can hardly be seen as a threat to a DFL-controlled council—and there aren’t a huge number of city issues that break down on ideological lines to begin with. But the energy that was spent trying to unseat him suggested that the DFL considered Fosle a very serious threat indeed.
According to campaign finance records, more than 120 people and groups donated to Janet Kennedy’s campaign, many of them more than once, for a total of $9,485. The list is a veritable who’s-who of Duluth DFL politics, many of whom live nowhere near Fosle’s district. Almost every other city council candidate contributed, as did a number of Fosle’s current and former colleagues, including Mayor Larson. The Duluth News Tribune endorsed Kennedy; so did former lieutenant governor Yvonne Prettner Solon and state representative Erik Simonson. Most astonishing of all, to me, was the fact that Senator Al Franken and Representative Rick Nolan actually traveled from Washington, D.C. to West Duluth to campaign for Kennedy. The Kennedy Facebook page features pictures of Franken, Nolan, and a very large chunk of the city council grinning at the camera in Janet Kennedy’s mother’s front yard.
Fosle, by contrast, did very little campaigning. He didn’t participate in forums or debates. He didn’t go door-knocking. He had 19 campaign donations, totaling $6,700. All of this was ammunition for the DFL, who trumpeted Fosle’s non-participation as evidence that he didn’t deserve to hold the office. But, of course, the person who gets to hold the office is the person who wins the election, and Fosle won handily, 2215 to 1705. I can only speculate that much of the rancor directed toward Fosle by his colleagues is due to resentment over what they view as an undeserved victory.

The Duluth News Tribune hit piece

On March 31, 2016, five days after the council retreat, an article appeared in the Duluth News Tribune. “Councilor’s absences stir concern,” announced the title, accompanied by a DNT file photo of Jay Fosle looking downcast and beaten. “The failure of 5th District Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle to attend any agenda sessions this year raises a couple of questions,” wrote reporter Peter Passi. “Are the agenda sessions important? And should councilors be expected to participate in them?”
It was not until the fifth paragraph that Passi got around to mentioning the reason for Fosle’s absences.

Fosle said medical procedures he needs to undergo before and after work each day, to deal with his diabetes and a thyroid that was removed following a bout with cancer, make the 5 p.m. agenda sessions tough to attend — unlike the regular 7 p.m. Monday City Council meetings.

The illness is the real story, but Passi and the DNT thought it best to highlight the fact that Fosle had missed agenda sessions and the council retreat. And if Fosle expected any sympathy from his fellow councilors, he was out of luck.
Joel Sipress said, “The charter says that if you show up to one meeting per month, you are entitled to your pay. But I think councilors generally understand there is more to the job than just that. There are all sorts of things we are not required to do in order to get our pay. I’m not required to call back constituents who leave me voicemails, but I do it. We’re not required to attend agenda sessions, but I do it.”
Howie Hanson said he thought the city charter was “antiquated,” and that councilors should be required to attend agenda sessions. “To me, as a businessperson, it begs the issue of: Let’s get a better job that we all are on the same page and understand what the expectations are. I think that for me, it’s a part of my job, and I find that they are helpful.”
Barb Russ said that Fosle, by not attending agenda sessions, was “us[ing] up valuable time at Monday meetings covering ground that should have been covered earlier.”

“Another thing that Councilor Fosle was doing for a couple of meetings is that he’d come in Monday, and he would ask four or five questions of (Chief Administrative Officer) Dave (Montgomery). Some of us were getting the impression that he’s just kind of grandstanding,” Russ said.
“He’s making it appear that he’s the only one who asks about things. I don’t know if our perception is correct about that, but it’s just kind of annoying — like, why don’t you just do it the way the rest of us have been instructed to do this stuff?” she said.

Em Westerlund agreed. “It kind of brings us backwards, instead of forwarding the dialogue….If somebody isn’t engaging with that process any more, I would like to know why.”
Nowhere in the article did anyone say, “Gee, it’s too bad Jay’s sick” or “Gosh, maybe we should change our meeting time a little bit to accommodate his treatment.” I suspect that everyone’s reaction to news of a DFLer fighting an illness would have been drastically different.

Clearing out the brush

There has been a lot of nonsense tied up with this story, so I would like to take a moment to set everyone straight with regard to certain details.

• Attending agenda sessions is not as crucial as everyone seems to think.

Yes, agenda sessions are nice. They allow councilors to get their questions answered on issues, and this may save a little time during the official council meeting. However, it is very easy to get questions answered without attending agenda sessions. Council agendas and all related attachments are posted online the week before council meetings. An audio recording of the agenda session itself is also posted. Should a councilor need more information, they can contact the relevant city official for it.

• Asking questions is not “grandstanding.”

Councilor Russ may believe that Fosle is wasting everyone’s time when he asks questions about things that “should have been answered earlier,” but the truth is that it’s useful for the public to hear councilors asking questions. Few members of the public pay attention to agenda sessions—it is regular council meetings that everyone watches. Experienced councilors will often deliberately ask questions during regular council meetings even when they already know the answers, just so the public is aware of their thinking.
In 2016, Councilor Fosle has asked the most questions during regular meetings of any councilor. In six meetings, he has asked 20 questions. The total time required to ask his questions and get the answers has consumed 18 minutes, or an average of 3 minutes per meeting. The next most prolific questioner was Howie Hanson, who asked 11 questions. He was followed by Councilor Filipovich (3 questions), Anderson (2), Hobbs (2), Elissa Hansen (1), Joel Sipress (1) and Em Westerlund (1). Barb Russ, true to her ideal of what a councilor should be, has not asked a single question in 2016.
From a historical perspective, Fosle’s level of questioning is not unusual. In my 18 years of following Duluth politics, I have seen many councilors who asked more than 3 minutes of questions per meeting. If anything, the new council is notable for its extreme lack of questions. As the new councilors become more comfortable in their roles, I expect they will ask more. Indeed, Fosle’s willingness to ask questions may embolden the new councilors to set out on their own paths.

• Councilor Hanson is more disruptive than Councilor Fosle.

To hear Howie Hanson yammering on at the retreat about Fosle’s “pettiness” and “disruption,” you’d think there was some basis for his remarks. The truth is that Hanson himself is the most disruptive of the councilors. He frequently addresses city staff in pointed, aggressive tones that imply they might be trying to hide something from him, and he makes unreasonable demands. On January 25, 2016, for instance, Hanson spent some time insisting that the council set a date for a Committee of the Whole meeting on the NorShor Theatre project RIGHT THEN. Council meetings are not the place to work out scheduling. Hanson was only demanding it to push the administration into a corner.
For all his talk about cooperation and teamwork, Hanson is quick to take offense at the tiniest perceived slight. In his early days on the council, he actually was slighted a number of times by council president Krug, which may have set him down that path, but to me, Hanson’s complaints are often about minor things that fall under the category of “stuff you should learn to deal with if you’re in politics.” For better or worse, Duluth has a strong mayor/weak council form of government; the most effective councilors find a way to navigate that framework and get things done. Hanson often just complains.

The Duluth News Tribune sent nobody to the retreat.

Reading their story about it, one might believe they had a reporter in attendance. They did not. Everything the DNT wrote about that meeting was hearsay.

The man speaks for himself

On March 31, 2016, I sat down with Councilor Fosle at the Clyde Iron restaurant to talk about all that had transpired. Regarding the file photo the Duluth News Tribune had chosen to run of him, he said, “It was the worst picture they could find.” I snapped my own photo of Fosle grinning. Fosle explained that he didn’t currently have cancer. He had cancer in 1999, at which time his thyroid was removed. His current health issue is diabetes, which he has had for some time, but which recently took a turn for the worse.
“Here’s what happened,” he said. “In September, I felt funny, and I go, ‘God, I should check my blood. I haven’t checked my blood in like a year.’ I’d been letting it go, you know?...I get my tester and I check and I go, ‘Oh, 490? There’s no way. It can’t be that high.’…Normally it’s supposed to be 80 to 120 on your blood level. I go, ‘There’s something wrong with this thing.’ I look, I go, ‘Oh, these [testing strips] are expired.’…So I get a whole new machine with all the fancy-pants new strips…and it’s like 503. And go, ‘What?’ And I call the company and [they told me] ‘You better call 911 or you better get ahold of somebody now.’ It was a wake-up call.”
Fosle was immediately put on medication. The issue was complicated by his missing thyroid, which required its own medication. But Fosle says he feels good. He has altered his lifestyle considerably. “I’m like the poster child now,” he laughed. “All I drink is water. I’ll have two glasses of milk a day, one with breakfast with my bowl of cereal and one at dinner, and that’s it.” Since Thanksgiving, he has lost 33 pounds, and his blood measurements have returned to normal levels.
Fosle takes his medication before and after work. If he deviates from this schedule, he gets an upset stomach, loses sleep, and sometimes even has to miss work the following day. “If it’s too late, it really screws me up. When I do it on time every day, it stays consistent.”
Unfortunately, Fosle gets done with work at 5 p.m., and council agenda sessions start at 5:15, which leaves him no time to drive to his home in Gary, take his medication, and get back to City Hall. He told me that he has also resigned from his position on the Duluth Economic Development Authority, which also meets at 5:15. He said he has had no problem attending regular council meetings, which begin at 7. “My [health issues have] never affected anything on my council position at all. I can still do everything.”
In the summer, Fosle’s work shift will start earlier and end at 4 p.m. When that happens, he said, he will be able to attend agenda sessions.
Regarding what fellow councilors said about him at the retreat and in the media, he said, ”If they have an issue with [me missing meetings], why didn’t they…try calling me?….It is a form of bullying, for sure.”
I asked him the question that continued to baffle me: What was it about Fosle that made the DFL so determined to get rid of him?
“They want everybody to be the same,” he said. “They don’t like me because I tell the truth. That’s the bottom line. I tell the truth.”