DULUTH – Don Ness stood opposite the dais where he served for years. Peering down at him were seven students just a few years younger than the former mayor was when he first won a seat on the Duluth City Council.
On this December night, however, Ness adopted a different persona, as did the 19 students enrolled in the local government course he teaches at the University of Minnesota Duluth. For a few hours, the third-floor chamber in Duluth’s City Hall was home to a mock gathering of the citizens and elected officials of the imaginary town of Springfield who met to debate a fictional development proposal.
Ness — aka Richard Bankman, a brash billionaire hedge fund manager who grew up in Springfield and moved away — implored the mock council members to approve a deal that would use city dollars to subsidize the development of a multimillion-dollar athletic facility.
Students had to consider the interests and concerns of their assigned characters as they weighed in on the issue, an exercise Ness hoped gave them insight into the dynamics at play in local government.
“It’s really evident that students today have a pretty sophisticated understanding of national politics,” he said. “But there’s a huge gap to understanding what’s happening in local government.”
Ness has taught a course at the university each semester since 2016, the year he finished his second term as Duluth’s mayor after deciding not to seek re-election. His weekly class focuses in part on educating young people in how to navigate the political spheres where he thinks they have the best chance of making “a very direct and outsized impact.”
Ness, a lifelong Duluthian, was 25 when he joined the City Council. One of his current students, senior Mike Mayou, spent the first half of the semester campaigning for one of the at-large council seats, a race he narrowly lost in November.
“This is where we can effect change in a way that’s less and less possible, certainly, at a national level, and I think increasingly at a state level,” Ness said.
While the students’ meeting was more colorful than the average Duluth council session, the questions and concerns raised and debated were much the same. Junior Christian Olson, playing a local home renter, said he worried the development would cause market values to spike so much that he would be forced to move out of his neighborhood. Junior Morgan Campbell, acting as a labor leader, praised the athletic-facility project for creating more union construction jobs.
“We were born and raised in this town. Why not make Springfield better than it is right now?” mock Council Member Hunter Dunteman asked passionately.
After deliberating issues such as the income gap, the dangers of gentrification, environmental ramifications and potential economic effects, Joel Sipress, who serves as Duluth’s District 2 council member, called roll for the vote on the proposed resolution.
Ness’ class was broken into two mock sessions, and the second group considered a motion to table the measure so that council members could get more information from the developer.
“This is turning into the plastic bag debate,” said senior Kelsey Soderberg, breaking out of character for a moment to refer to an ordinance Duluth’s City Council passed recently after more than a month of drawn-out debate.
In a conclusion fitting for those seeking a taste of the true local government experience, the motion passed and the resolution was tabled, leaving the city of Springfield to wait another day to see whether it would get its new sports complex.