FARGO - City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn is doubling down on his attack on Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, a nonprofit group that handles refugee resettlement in the state.
He told fellow commissioners at their Monday, Oct. 24, meeting that he wants the city to bring in outside auditors to study the group's re-settlement costs. "I have no confidence; I have no certainty that LSS is telling us the truth."
"I've had comments off the record that are frankly startling and really alarming," he said. "Several comments LSS is making are unsubstantiated."
He's alluding to a report the group's CEO, Jessica Thomasson, gave at the last commission meeting Oct. 10 explaining how much the group spends to help people fleeing war and persecution. Dan Mahli, the city's community development administrator, also gave a report at the time on how much local governments spend.
Piepkorn didn't believe the numbers and publicly questioned their credibility.
Commissioner John Strand, who says he heard concerns about resettlement costs when campaigning, said he agrees it needs studying. But he said he's concerned with, among other things, Piepkorn's tone, including his insult against LSS and a city staff. "One of the things that I think is paramount in a public process such as this is to stay on the high road and to have as much respect of everybody involved as possible."
Strand's bigger concern is the debate will affect how Fargo is seen nationally. "Because the process we're on now, it's putting Fargo in a light that I'm not proud of. When I read in Breitbart.com that I'm the one with the agenda and they're quoting you that just startles me," he said. "And we have national media, not just Breitbart. we have others that are coming here getting these signals."
Breitbart News, a conservative news outlet that other news outlets say is especially friendly to Donald Trump, sent a reporter to the Oct. 10 meeting. Strand and Piepkorn were both interviewed.
While Strand said little at that last meeting, when commissioners agreed to send the issue to the Human Relations Commission, he unleashed on Piepkorn on Monday. If the committee is handling it, why didn't Piepkorn ask those commissioners to discuss an audit? Why didn't he call LSS or the other local governments to ask about audits?
Only three commissioners, including the mayor, attended the Monday meeting. Commissioners Tony Gehrig and Tony Grindberg were absent.
Strand also criticized Piepkorn for failing to bring up the refugee question during the budget process, which typically stretches over many weeks and doesn't get as much media coverage. "Your fingerprints are all over our budget. You had more months than I did helping to influence and prepare our budget. You had two other budgets that you as a commissioner have been involved in. To the best of my knowledge, you've never raised this question ever."
Piepkorn didn't respond directly to that criticism.
Mayor Tim Mahoney said Thomasson has welcomed scrutiny and will allow Piepkorn to interview LSS' auditors at the accounting firm Eide Bailly and Cass County Auditor Mike Montplaisir has agreed to walk the commissioner through the budget as well.
Piepkorn said Eide Bailly would only have as much information as LSS agreed to share and he doesn't trust LSS. He said he wants the commission to ask the state auditor to audit LSS. "If you oppose an audit, that's fine, but you're going to go on record opposing it. I think that'll be a huge mistake. I'll just wait until I have a majority."
The commissioner said he had "many, many calls" thanking him for bringing up the issue but the callers told him they were too scared to identify themselves for fear of losing their job. "I probably had 15 calls like that. To me, whenever there's bullying going on, that scares me."
Toward the end of the meeting, Strand said this is an uncomfortable process but he asked commissioners to imagine how uncomfortable it must be for someone from Bhutan or Burundi.