At council meeting, Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski apologizes for wording in recent Facebook post
Bochenski had shown support for an organization that was critical of a proposed policy at UND. Tuesday, the mayor listened to several members of the LGBTQ+ community, who thanked him after the meeting.
GRAND FORKS – Mayor Brandon Bochenski apologized to the LGBTQ+ community for his wording in a Facebook post in which he supported the North Dakota Catholic Conference's opposition of a proposed gender inclusion policy at UND.
The mayor’s apology came after several members of the community spoke during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting of the Grand Forks City Council.
“Undoubtedly, my words were unduly harsh, and I apologize for that,” Bochenski said. “I’m glad to be able to sit here tonight and learn.”
Bochenski last week used his Facebook page to support a letter from the North Dakota Catholic Conference, which had criticized the proposed policy at UND, which would require students, administrators and others on campus to use names, gendered references and pronouns that match a person’s stated gender identity.
“Compelling speech and forcing ideology on our students, our children and our community is abhorrent,” Bochenski wrote. “Is it possible for a university to focus on academic rigor and preparing our youth to enter the workforce with the skills of adulthood? A sad day for my alma mater.”
He also wrote that “in Grand Forks, North Dakota, we treat everyone with respect, dignity and civility. This exact statement is already in the UND Code of Student Life and a cornerstone of our Christian faith.”
At Tuesday’s council meeting, several attendees expressed the hurt they felt after Bochenski’s post.
“We are human just like you,” UND student and Queer & Trans Alliance President Charles Vondal said.
Attendees discussed the need for a gender inclusion policy in schools, like the one UND has proposed.
“The gender inclusion policy is a human rights policy,” Grand Forks resident Claire Gaddie told council members. “It reflects the value and dignity that all individuals deserve.”
Gaddie continued: “This is not just an issue of pronouns. This is about establishing protection for a marginalized people.”
Raquel Smith spoke about the lack of inclusion she sees LGBTQ+ kids face on a daily basis. ”I see, every day, the heartbreak when they are harassed, when they are abused.”
Many talked about high suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth. “If this policy can save one life, that’s all that matters,” Smith said.
Brenda Lewis, assistant superintendent of elementary education for Grand Forks Public Schools, spoke about letters she’s received since the mayor’s Facebook post. Lewis read aloud one letter she received and concluded her comments by saying, “It is my job to ensure that all of our voices in Grand Forks Public Schools are heard with a particular focus on our students that are most marginalized, historically and present day.”
Leo Otte, a UND student, was the last to speak during the public-input session, leaving some attendees in tears.
“At UND, we are training to be a career professional. … One big thing with professionalism is tolerance,” Otte said. “When a person meets you and they tell you their name, you’re going to call them by their name as a professional and by their pronouns as a professional. If we aren’t having our professors call us by our names and our pronouns, that is unprofessional and setting a bad example for the students. From a personal standpoint, I get enough misgendering and misnaming at home. I don’t need that at UND, too.”
Otte only recently came out publicly and therefore has “never really been called my pronouns before, or my chosen name.”
However, at an event Saturday, Otte “got called by my proper name and proper pronouns for the first time. You have no idea how good that makes me feel. You have no idea how hard I cried when I heard that for the first time. It was so warm. It was so nice.”
Bochenski, after Otte concluded, thanked those who spoke and offered his apology.
“I appreciate all of the stories, the deeply personal stories, everyone was able to share tonight,” he said. “I’m glad that you came. Thank you.”
From the crowd, someone then replied: “Thank you for the apology. We really appreciate it.”
In a brief interview following the meeting, the Herald asked Bochenski if he has changed his mind about the Catholic Conference’s opinion or if he wished he’d have used different wording.
“It means I wish I would have used my words differently,” he said. “I would say right now I was just glad to hear everyone out. I’m open-minded at this point.”
In other council news Tuesday:
- The council approved a conditional use permit to operate ShareHouse, a residential addiction recovery assistance facility located at 1122 North 43rd St. Grand Forks ShareHouse will provide 16 single-occupancy rooms for those suffering from the disease of addiction. The Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council may periodically review the permit and revoke it if conditions established are not adhered to.
- Members of the council approved to set the Olive Ann Boutique Hotel’s payment In lieu of taxes (PILOT) public hearing for the City Council meeting on March 7. The Local Government Advisory Committee met Jan. 12 and voted 6-1 for a 100% PILOT exemption for years 6-10 and 80% PILOT exemption for years 11-15.
- City Attorney Dan Gaustad offered a hint that negotiations with Fufeng Group, the Chinese agribusiness seeking to build a new north-end manufacturing plant, could become public soon.
Gaustad suggested that City Council members might meet the week of Jan. 31 for a potential work session to go over a proposed development agreement. He made no promises about the pace of negotiations. But when that document is finished, it will outline major responsibilities for both the city and Fufeng Group as the two spend significant sums to bring the plant — and its hundreds of jobs — to the city.
"We don’t have an agreement in front of you tonight, and that’s because we had a fairly lengthy meeting with the Fufeng representatives and their attorney last Thursday,” Gaustad said. “It was a productive meeting, but there’s still some more work to be done on the development agreement and the (tax incentive) agreement as well. I think the best way to put it (is) this is a complex process, and getting everything lined up is not necessarily easy. But we’re moving in the right direction.”
-Sam Easter contributed to this report.