MOORHEAD -- The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce may lose a member and get a name change -- unless there is a change of heart on the Moorhead City Council.
An attempt to change Moorhead's city charter to allow the council to continue paying dues for Chamber membership failed Aug 26 to get the unanimous vote it needed.
Now the issue is up in the air.
A second reading was tabled after a public hearing and discussion Sept. 9. And the issue isn't on the agenda for the Monday, Sept. 23, meeting.
The money isn't the issue, council members said.
The $2,400-a-year dues paid by the city is a small amount in a city budget of $84 million.
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But there is a reluctance to change the charter without taking the issue to voters.
There are perceptions about politics -- of council members and the state and national chambers -- coming into play.
And even supporters have said they worry that future councils -- radicalized to the right or left -- could misuse the charter change and do damage that couldn’t be undone for months or years.
Chamber President and CEO Craig Whitney is flummoxed.
“The thought that they don’t see the value as being a member of the Chamber befuddles me. I just can’t figure it out,” he said Friday, Sept. 20.
Whitney said the Chamber has lobbied for Moorhead on Interstate 94 ramp projects and Local Government Aid. They also help pay for a lobbyist.
“The mayor (Johnathan Judd) is totally behind being a member. He seems to get the reasons why. And he seems to get that if they (the city) weren’t, what they’d lose out on,” Whitney said.
“We’re trying to have a regional approach. We can’t believe that they wouldn’t be members of the Chamber,” Whitney said.
The city of Moorhead, Moorhead Public Service and the city’s Economic Development Authority have long paid Chamber dues.
However, state law doesn’t allow cities such as Moorhead to pay those dues -- and hasn’t for more than 20 years, according to the state attorney general -- unless their charters are changed to allow memberships in a chamber of commerce.
The League of Minnesota Cities brought that law to the attention of its members in early 2018. Early this year, City Manager Christina Volkers asked the city’s charter commission to make the needed change. By June the commission had made the change.
“The city is authorized to become a member of private organizations and local chambers of commerce, to designate representatives from the city council to serve in the organization(s) and chamber(s) and to appropriate funds to cover membership fees, costs and expenses associated with private organizations and local chambers of commerce,” read revised language sent to the council in July for a public hearing.
But at the end of the first reading on Aug. 26, the council vote was 6-2. With a unanimous vote of the council and mayor required to amend the charter, it was a loss. Mayor Judd and council members Sara Watson Curry, Shelly Carlson, Joel Paulsen, Deb White and Chuck Hendrickson voted for the change. Council members Heidi Durand and Shelly Dahlquist voted against it.
On Friday, Durand said the language allowing the council to help fund other groups was “a little bit upsetting.”
“I don’t take changing the charter lightly,” Durand said. She’d prefer the public be allowed to vote on the issue.
But there’s a ready solution, she said: Simply get the Chamber to allow the Economic Development Authority to represent the city.
“I don’t know why that entity couldn’t pay full dues and be the city’s spot,” Durand said.
Durand is also unhappy with the national- and state-level chambers, which she said promote policies that could be construed as anti-worker or anti-union.
“I get hung up on the city paying money to join an organization that many people feel is politicized,” Durand said.
Hendrickson voted for the charter change, but with reservations. He worries about fringe groups “on either side of the spectrum” getting too much power on future councils.
“That’s my main concern right now. …. There’s a lot of things that have happened in politics in the last 10 years that I didn’t think would happen,” Hendrickson said.
He’d be happier if the amendment only referred to the Chamber of Commerce and would be willing to send the issue back to the charter commission for word-smithing. He’d also be fine with having the EDC be Moorhead’s representative.
“My bottom line is we need to be part of the Chamber of Commerce. …. I think it’s just too valuable of a resource to not be part of it,” Hendrickson said. “We’re a metro area. We need to work together.”
Attempts to reach Dahlquist were unsuccessful.
City employees said Volkers was on vacation and unavailable to talk late last week. Judd, an attorney, was working and also unavailable for comment.
Whitney said that some of the resistance among some on the council is “based on partisan politics. They view (the Chamber) as a right, conservative organization.”
If Moorhead isn’t part of the Chamber, changes may need to be made, Whitney said.
Right now, the Chamber is the only paying tenant at Moorhead's Hjemkomst Center, he said. That could end. Also, if Moorhead is not a member, "we would have to look at what is the name of the Chamber.”