City of Duluth moves to remove the word 'chief' from key job titles

Duluth City Hall
The city of Duluth is moving to delete the word “chief” from the titles of two of its administrative leadership positions in an effort to remove language that Native Americans and others find offensive. 
Bob Kelleher | MPR Photo 2009

The city of Duluth is moving to delete the word “chief” from the titles of two of its administrative leadership positions in an effort to remove language that some Native Americans and others find offensive. 

On Monday, the City Council is scheduled to take up an amendment to the city charter to change the name of the city’s “chief administrative officer” to “city administrator.” The city’s “chief financial officer” would be renamed “finance director.” 

“We are dropping the name ‘chief’ with intention and with purpose so we have more inclusive leadership, and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive and intentional marginalization,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said in explaining the move. 

Last month the city’s charter commission unanimously supported making the change. Larson also asked the city council for a unanimous vote backing the language change, “to more accurately reflect the city that we are, and the city that we are becoming.”

Larson said the discussion to change the position names started internally with concerns that staff raised. The city’s charter — the document that grounds the city’s work — is made up of very masculine language, Larson said. 

When a gender is identified, it’s always “him.” City staff wanted a more “people first” and “gender-neutral” language “that can better reflect the work we do now,” Larson added. 

Alicia Kozlowski, the city’s community relations officer and a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said the word “chief” is often used as a racial epithet. 

“I think there are other titles that we have the opportunity to use,” she said, “to steer away from language that may put people down based off of their race or culture,” adding that the city wanted to be proactive and address the issue before it was asked. 

Mayor Larson said the city is also exploring changing the titles of the Police Chief and Fire Chief. She said Police Chief Mike Tusken and Shawn Krizaj are interested in the possibility, but said there are other considerations to weigh because the language is built into the framework of professional organizations and affiliations. 

It’s unclear whether other cities in Minnesota have made similar efforts to scrub the word “chief” from job titles. A spokesperson for the Minnesota League of Cities said its staff is unaware whether other cities are considering similar proposals. 

For Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, the move makes sense, given that there are many other suitable language substitutes without any negative connotations — “and to do that in a way that is more inclusive, more reflective, more accurate and more modern.”

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