DULUTH – The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to table a proposed ordinance that would remove the word “chief” from a job title, a change Mayor Emily Larson promoted out of sensitivity to indigenous people.
Last week, Larson urged the council to support the city-led measure “so that we have more inclusive leadership and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive, intentional marginalization.”
Council members have received dozens of emails from constituents and out-of-towners in the days since her appeal, including many pointing out the word’s Latin etymology and widespread use in military and corporate contexts.
“I feel like chief has been an honorable title for many, many years. And it does not even stem from the indigenous community,” Council Member Derek Medved said in an interview Monday. His motion to table a vote on the ordinance was seconded by Council Member Joel Sipress.
“If this stemmed from a complaint, I might have a different perspective,” said Medved, who added that he calls himself the chief executive of his local gas station and convenience store business. “I would be a hypocrite to vote on this tonight and go back to my desk like nothing happened.”
The ordinance aims to change Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman’s title to city administrator. The switch would require a charter amendment, which must receive unanimous approval from the council.
Larson also broached the subject of changing the titles of Duluth’s police and fire chiefs, though no formal effort to do so has been launched.
“Never will I ever vote for that,” Medved said. “In the next 3.5 years, it will never happen while I’m on the council.”
Council Member Arik Forsman and Medved discussed the possibility of editing the ordinance’s statement of purpose to show the change to Schuchman’s title would employ a term more commonly used by other municipalities. Both council members said discussions about other city job titles would be a distraction at a time when the Duluth faces more pressing problems, like a $25 million budget shortfall.
Council Member Renee Van Nett, the first Native American woman elected to Duluth’s council, said she hopes to see more conversations about the use of the word, starting in the city’s indigenous Commission — though she wouldn’t go as far as removing “chief” from law enforcement lexicon.
“That language has been used against us,” she said. “And it’s harmful.”