DAMN. IT TOOK ME OVER 1,700 WORDS TO WRITE THIS AND I’M STILL NOT FINISHED. EXPECT FURTHER CHANGES.
That might as well have been the headline of the story. What Gary told reporter Mark Stodghill was accurate. He was not anybody’s liaison with Grant Merritt. In fact, in keeping an arm’s length from Merritt he was following Merritt’s own advice to him not to sign the petition. Over a year ago Gary did circulate the petition at a meeting of Let Duluth Vote and you will find many LDV stalwarts signatures on it including mine. I’m asked to sign such petitions all the time by earnest young people with worthy causes. Maybe even Stodghill has succumbed to them on occasion. No one who signs such a thing ever expects a lawyer to demand payment for representing their interests. This was Grant Merritt’s petition. He needed it to proceed to court. How did he get involved?
Gary and Grant knew each other through the Isaac Walton League. They both got together to craft a legal challenge to force shipping companies to clean their ballast tanks to stop the spread of invasive species. The particular pest that has been troubling Glass was a fish virus. He had begun an effort to contain it well before his involvement with the Red Plan. He regarded his run for the school board as something of a detour and a necessary evil.
In addition to being environmentalists both Merritt and Glass are Central High grads. Merritt suggested that a petition be circulated demanding an environmental review. It could create a group that could take a complaint to Court if the City of Duluth refused to order an environmental impact statement. Gary understood that legal fees wouldn’t be much more than $5,000 and thought that they could be taken care of in a trade of services. Gary would waive any fees for his expert testimony in the Isaac Walton case and Grant Merritt would do the legal footwork fighting the Red Plan. Both men have a very different understanding of the implications of their agreement.
Because of his arm’s length position Gary left it to a Lester Park homeowner facing eminent domain from the Red Plan to collect the attorney’s correspondence. Although Gary was not officially tied to the petition his wife Faith was one of the petition signers and he was not disinterested in Merritt’s work including the billing. In fact, he grew alarmed because he saw an emerging pattern of billing that duplicated Merritt’s billing for the Isaac Walton League fish virus/ship ballast case. Eventually Merritt billed the League to the tune of $30,000 dollars which sucked up all the money set aside for the legal work before the case ever got to court. Gary was never called for his reciprocal expert testimony and the Judge dismissed the case. All this information was reported over time to Let Duluth Vote which was also raising money for an as yet unspecified legal challenge.
I was asked to attend a meeting with Merritt a year ago and I went with some reluctance because I had more than enough fish to fry. I got a sense of the issues. The Planning Commission would decide whether an EAW would be necessary for the entire Red Plan. If the EAW raised concerns an EIS could be required. The petitioners were interested in having these environmental reviews imposed on every part of the Red Plan. One issue was the definition of a “project.” Was the entire Red Plan a single project with many parts all of which were subject to environmental review or were the individual parts of it only subject to such reviews. The other question was who had the authority to ask for the review, the City’s Planning Commission or the City Council
Knowing nothing about environmental law I could see possibilities in the case but one meeting was enough to convince me that I should stay focused on other issues.
Gary’s relationship with Merritt was awkward. He stopped calling Merritt fairly early on to keep the relationship distant and avoid what he saw as a steady ratcheting up of legal bills. Soon the bills overcame the modest fundraising of the homeowner who had only hoped to stall the forced purchase of his house. The District eventually got it anyway and he had long since handed over the constant stream of Merritt bills to me. I made it clear that since this wasn’t my case or Let Duluth Vote’s case I felt no responsibility for it and I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack if I stuck a bill in my files and ignored it.
Last year there was a fairly long period of time three to six months when there was virtually no conversation between Merritt and anyone in Duluth who signed the petition. This was lost time.
The political climate in Duluth was not helpful. The City wanted to stay out of the battle with the School District and the Planning Commission seemed to defer to the movers and shakers who wanted the public construction to be approved. I doubted that the portion of the case demanding the City Council make the decision would get anywhere because the Council had made it clear they weren’t going to overturn their Planning Commissions approval of the Red Plan. The Commission was going to treat the Red Plan like separate projects and was going to ask for a review of one or two of them the Ordean site being the most likely. That review has been completed and the Commission will be acting on it this month. Some of us feel it is a whitewash paid for by the District but that’s a whole different story.
Merritt’s legal work came up periodically at Let Duluth Vote meetings. It was still on the periphery but we occasionally wrote checks to Merritt and his protégé Julie Root, an idealist young attorney who seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the research and who, unlike Merritt, charged us very modestly for her work.
Ignoring the Merritt bills couldn’t last forever and I eventually I had to contact Merritt to see if his work could force a postponement of the Red Plan or not. If so it might be worth it to Let Duluth Vote to pay more of his bills. Also, it wasn’t right to ignore his bills if he had done work of genuine value. Of course, I had to start talking to him and to Julie Root even though I was looking for a very different case to take to court which would win us more than a mere delay in starting the construction.
Gary had read the legal briefs written by Root and polished by Merritt whereas I had only skimmed them if that. One day when I called him from my car as I was driving to the Twin Cities to visit my Mother he asked me to contact Root. It led to two-hour meeting, which Root didn’t charge me for. I told her we were pursuing other attorneys for a different case but we spent some time going over the details of her work.
I was impressed with her earnestness and enthusiasm. I eventually ended up calling Merritt and meeting one time. I was worried about whether he was merely milking us for attorney’s fees or doing work which could help us. The Isaac Walton example was discouraging but he was genial and he had a serious resume having been Minnesota’s PCA Commissioner.
I told Grant last fall about how Let Duluth Vote was gearing up to raise money for attorneys. He was quite curious about this. Once we started raising money late in the year it wasn’t long that Merritt’s bills began climbing again much to everyone’s consternation.
Hoping for good faith from Merritt and having sensed it from Root I once begged Let Duluth Vote to advance an addition thousand dollars to Merritt. When it was denied I wrote the check myself and gave it to Merritt to show my good faith.
I don’t know for certain whether that good faith was ever reciprocated or not. I sent him an email making it clear some months ago that Let Duluth Vote would pay him no more. Let Duluth Vote had agreed to give him one last payment of a thousand dollars if he would turn over his legal files on the case for us to give to another attorney. I didn’t tell Merritt that this had been agreed upon but offered to try to raise it for Merritt if he would turn his work over. He refused. Instead Grant mailed is unpaid bills to Gary Glass who refused to accept them.
There was no retainer agreement. Grant had asked Gary and Faith Glass and others to sign one for over a year but no one would fearful of the financial consequences. As a result, Merritt was taking his chances when he worked on the case, if he worked on the case.
A succession of judges recused themselves from the case. Hearings were canceled. Merritt’s work seemed ineffectual and Let Duluth Vote had not raised precious money to squander it on anything suggestive of incompetence. I personally hoped that Julie Root would take over the case but Julie made it clear that her loyalty was to Grant Merritt and she seems genuinely offended that anyone else might mistrust him.
The Trib’s story made Glass out to be a villain. The Reporter can deny that this was his intent but my wife told me that Glass looked like an idiot and I’ve heard that elsewhere. As I noted in an earlier post Gary’s suspicions of the Trib did not help him in this case. Certainly, the Trib has been woefully unresponsive to news of the District’s failures. Let Duluth Vote has many members who were sympathetic to a suggestion of mine a year ago that a boycott of the Trib be organized.
Damn it. The Trib is a shadow of its former self but it’s still the only general newspaper in Duluth even with its bone headed management. As pitiful as it is it’s still the best we’ve got. Just because one of your eyes has a cataract doesn’t mean should pluck it out with a pen knife. Still, a more fully fleshed out story, a retraction or an apology would be in order.
Don’t count on reading one.
Oh, and here’s one last complaint.
After that yesterday’s headline ”Attorneys for Red Plan Challengers quit” I have to worry that the 2,000 people who contributed to Let Duluth Vote’s legal challenge of the Red Plan now think that Let Duluth Vote isn’t paying its attorneys with their precious, hard earned, money.
Thanks for nothing Duluth News Tribune.