DULUTH – A City Council vote to remove the word “chief” from a job title failed Monday after Council Member Derek Medved abstained from the decision, saying the measure was “proposed with division in mind.”
The ordinance, which aimed to switch Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman’s title to city administrator, would have meant changing the city’s charter. Doing so requires unanimous council approval.
The tweak was originally crafted with a statement of purpose implying the term “chief” is offensive to Native Americans. Mayor Emily Larson urged the council to support the measure last month “so that we have more inclusive leadership and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive, intentional marginalization.”
Dozens of critics sent e-mails to council members, pointing out the word’s Latin etymology and widespread use in military and corporate contexts. The ordinance was edited to say its purpose was “to better reflect the industry’s professional standards.”
Still, many viewed the small change as symbolic of a larger conversation about language and race. Duluth’s Indigenous Commission unanimously voted in support of the measure before Monday’s council meeting.
“This is something that has great meaning to us as tribal people. It’s not a term that we would throw around,” Kassie Helgerson, a member of the commission, told the council. “It is no different than the football team, the Redskins. It’s offensive.”
Medved said if the ordinance had been introduced differently, he would have supported it.
“There was no complaint. There was no dispute,” he said. “This was completely brought out of the mayor’s office.”
Medved, who was elected last November, said he was not certain his abstention would sink the ordinance, though he suspected it may.
“A ‘no’ vote would have said I have no further interest in conversation. But ‘abstain’ just said I cannot … pick a side on this,” Medved said.
Other council members also criticized the mayor’s handling of the matter, though they said the small change was worthwhile if Schuchman desired it. Others added that little harm would come of the tweak, and they felt it could make a minority community feel respected and heard.
Renee Van Nett, the first Native American woman elected to Duluth’s council, expressed exasperation over how much time and energy the debate had consumed.
“Whatever it is that happens, please can we just get it done?” she said. “This is another layer of something I live through, and my kids have to live through. People are going to come at me no matter what.”