The “circus” has left city hall

by Tom Coombe, Echo editor -

“Tom, are you ready for the circus?”
The words of the late Frank Salerno, as we crossed paths in the men’s room at City Hall, remain ingrained some two decades after the fact.
Frank was in a frosty mood on this chilly evening, no doubt still feeling the burn from a tumultuous month or so in city politics. Some of the flames were fanned on the editorial pages and in the news section of the Ely Echo.
Frank lost his mayor’s seat to Mike Forsman in a 1992 race decided by three votes, and as city council members gathered on Jan. 3, 1995, their first meeting of the new year, he was poised to regain the seat he so coveted.
A year after losing the mayor’s race, Ely voters put Frank back on the council. The following November, Forsman won a seat on the St. Louis County Board.
Ely needed a mayor. The Echo that came out the previous day had a headline that posed the question “Who will be Ely’s next mayor?”
Dozens of Ely residents, some coming to a city meeting for the first time, climbed the steps and filled the wooden pews. It was standing room only with nearly 100 people on hand to take it all in.
Media outlets in Virginia and Duluth awaited word. Ely, as is its habit to this day, was making news and City Hall was abuzz with activity.
It was a community event, one nothing at all like the council’s first meeting of 2018.
City Council meetings just aren’t what they used to be. The days of three and four-hour sessions and 10 p.m.- or-later departures from City Hall are a distant memory.
The rancor and tempest at the council table and in the audience are nowhere near as prevalent as in days gone by - save for the occasional dust-up over mining, a council member’s Facebook comments or moving a rock.
It was even quieter than usual this week as the first meeting of the new year carried on without a couple of council members, and with only three residents and a couple of media people coming out on a bitterly cold evening to watch what amounted to a 22-minute session.
Local government at work in Ely, at least on this Tuesday night, was drab and mundane and served in telling contrast, at least for one longtime observer, to the lively night some 23 years ago.
The debate over filling the mayoral position simmered as soon as Forsman won his race in Nov., 1994.
An unwitting Ely council didn’t just boil it over, it set the stove on fire nearly a month later by deciding, without warning and without even notice on a meeting agenda, to appoint Salerno as mayor beginning the next month.
The before-the-fact decision was widely criticized, particularly by incoming council member Ed Steklasa and on the Echo editorial pages, and deemed contrary to the law by then city attorney Bill Defenbaugh.
Suggestions of back-room politics were among the volleys, and the Salerno appointment was rescinded two weeks later.
Defenbaugh, who within a month would be out as city attorney, correctly surmised that the council can’t take action to fill a vacancy that didn’t yet exist.
Forsman had yet to resign and others, including another council member and future mayor, Lolita Schnitzius, had shown interest in the mayoral seat. Steklasa even suggested that the council remain intact and that the city look elsewhere - perhaps to former mayor Joe Baltich - to fill the top spot.
Steklasa penned a lengthy letter to the editor while a few in town blamed the Echo for the entire mess and making an issue of the Salerno appointment. A former and long departed city official cried out “this is yellow journalism and you can quote me on that.” Another practically sneered.
It wasn’t the first and nowhere near the last time an embattled public official blamed the newspaper, but for a young reporter it was fascinating and a bit terrifying.
The drama reached a fever pitch as 1994 turned to ‘95. By this night, Forsman had resigned his seat to take his spot on the county board and Ely finally had an open mayor’s chair.
Council members - and an attentive audience - listened intently as new city attorney Larry Klun walked through the procedural issues. Klun said the council had no choice but to appoint someone as mayor for the rest of the year. A special election wasn’t allowed under the City Charter and a mayor needed to be seated to fill the last year of Forsman’s term. Another wrinkle? Whoever was nominated may not vote on the motion.
It proved to be no easy decision for a divided council. A motion to appoint Salerno produced a 2-2 split, with Schnitzius showing the grace that no doubt helped her win two future terms as mayor, put her own aspirations aside for the time being and cast the deciding vote for Salerno.
For Salerno, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Just 10 months later he would lose to Steklasa in the most bitter mayoral race Ely has seen in a quarter-century or more. But despite the defeat, Salerno was nowhere near done with city politics. He wold return to the mayor’s chair for a two-year term in the 2000s and serve two more stints on the council, resigning one year before his death in 2013.
By then, city government had become more streamlined. Decisions micromanaged by the council two decades earlier were now delegated to professional staff.
Council sessions that once were three and four hours long now finished in an hour.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if passion has been replaced by efficiency. Or apathy.
Whatever it is, it sure isn’t how it used to be.