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Fargo mayor's push for paid holiday on MLK Jr. Day fails

FARGO – For now, City Hall will remain open on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after two city commissioners voted Monday night against a proposal to establish a paid city holiday to commemorate the civil rights leader.

With one commissioner absent, four commissioners split the vote 2-2, causing the motion to fail. Any of them could bring it back for a new vote when all five members are present.

Mayor Tim Mahoney proposed the plan, citing a variety of reasons, including racial tension around the country that's led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The commission agreed to make MLK Jr. Day a city holiday two weeks ago but didn't sign off on an adding a day off for employees.

"It's my feeling that black lives do matter, and we have to address this issue. It should truly be a holiday," he said. "Schools are off, federal holiday, state holiday, and I think for our employees with child care issues and such, it's much easier for them to be able to do that."

Commissioner Tony Gehrig disagreed, saying city employees have a flex day that they can take off whenever they want, including MLK Jr. Day.

"What we're talking about here today has nothing to do with Martin Luther King Jr. or remembering a great man. This is about politics and I'm not going to be a part of it," Gehrig said.

Commissioner Mike Williams sided with Mahoney, Commissioner Dave Piepkorn with Gehrig. Commissioner Melissa Sobolik was absent.

Fargo city employees now get nine holidays off, the same as their counterparts in West Fargo, who also do not have MLK Jr. Day off. Mayor Rich Mattern told The Forum last week that he's open to discussing adding the day as a paid city holiday, but it's never come up.

State employees in North Dakota and Minnesota have 10 days off, including MLK Jr. Day, which is observed on the third Monday of January. Local governments in Minnesota, such as the city of Moorhead, get at least nine days off, including MLK Jr. Day.

Gehrig pointed out that with the flex day, Fargo city employees actually have 10 days off.

Mahoney said West Fargo city employees have two flex days in addition to nine holidays. The city of Fargo should be competitive as an employer, he said.

Williams echoed Mahoney's reasoning: "It's a worthy effort. Our employees deserve it. I think Martin Luther King recognition, I think it shows we understand unity of community. And I'm on board."

The cost to the city of having the day off is $75,000, including police and public works employees, Mahoney said.

Piepkorn didn't explain during the meeting his reasoning but said afterward, "It's really another benefit for the employees, another vacation day. And so, to me, if we're going to spend another $75,000, then we have to figure out where's the money coming from."

Proposals to honor King with a holiday began gaining steam about a decade after his 1968 assassination. It's still a somewhat rare holiday benefit in the private sector, but it's been a federal holiday since 1986.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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