Fargo mayor wants to seek another term, but city lawyer says he can't

Gehrig asks to expand City Commission, create wards

012921.N.FF.MAYORSLETTER file of Mahoney
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney speaks during a COVID-19 briefing Nov. 18, 2020, in City Hall. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — Mayor Tim Mahoney would like to run for mayor again next June, but the issue hasn't been settled yet.

He brought his own lawyer to the Monday, July 12, City Commission meeting to help plead his case.

Mahoney took his post following a special election in 2015 after the death of former Mayor Dennis Walaker in the midst of his term in 2014. Prior to that, he was a city commissioner.

City Attorney Erik Johnson has written a memo that he believed the mayor was not eligible to run again, stating Mahoney had hit his term limit.


Johnson said he would write another opinion or letter explaining his views, but added what he wrote wasn't enforceable.

According to the city charter, a person can only serve three successive terms on the Fargo City Commission as a commissioner and an additional fourth term if any of the terms are also served as mayor.

The City Commission could simply make a change through the city ordinances to the home-rule charter to allow Mahoney to run again, Johnson said.

Mahoney, in the meantime, acquired an opinion from former Grand Forks city attorney Howard Swanson that said he should be eligible to run again.

Additionally, he hired attorney Tami Norgard of Vogel Law Firm who also said it was her interpretation of the city charter and other legal cases that Mahoney could run again because he didn't have successive terms.

She emphasized they weren't successive because Mahoney had to resign his city commission seat to run for mayor as required in the charter, adding his first term as mayor wasn't a full term, either. She argued Mahoney had three non-successive terms and thus would be eligible to run for a fourth, which is allowed because he was both a commissioner and mayor.

Mahoney was elected to three terms on the commission in 2006, 2010 and 2014, but he didn't finish that 2014 term because of his resignation and run for mayor. He was elected mayor in a special election on April 28, 2015, and then won reelection in June of 2018 for the four-year term that runs through next June.


The commission directed Johnson on a 5-0 vote to again weigh in on the question of Mahoney's eligibility.

If the commission doesn't make a decision, it could end up in court.

"Time is of the essence," said Commissioner John Strand , as people are deciding on whether to run for mayor or City Commission seats.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said if Mahoney was allowed to run again and the city ordinance was approved, then someone who was reaching their term limit could just resign their seat toward the end of their term and be eligible to run again in the next election.

Mahoney became visibly upset with that interpretation. He said he resigned only because of Walaker's death.

The mayor said he has "enjoyed every moment" of being mayor, and with "a lot of stuff on the table going on right now," he would like to continue to work on issues.

In other matters dealing with city elections and governance, the commissioners decided to form a task force to look at issues to hopefully place on the June 2022 ballot for residents to decide.

Commissioner Tony Gehrig brought up other governance issues, two of which were approved and will be studied further by the task force.


One of those ballot questions involved transitioning to a ward system under which people would be elected from specific parts of the city. The other would allow residents to decide whether the commission should keep or discontinue term limits.

A third motion to increase the number of commissioners from five to seven failed to gather a favorable vote, failing on a 2-3 vote.

Right now, Gehrig said, Mahoney is the only member of the commission who lives on the south side of Main Avenue.

Both Gehrig and Commissioner Arlette Preston said a ward system would provide people with better communication with their commissioners, and they would be closer to issues facing neighborhoods.

Piepkorn questioned the benefit of changing the five-member commission, which he said was working well.

"I've seldom encountered where more politicians make the world a better place," he said.

Mahoney agreed that the five-member commission was working well, with Fargo being one of the best, most efficient and well-run cities in the country.

M-State political science professor Mark Johnson said in a presentation to commissioners that among mid-sized cities with populations from 100,000 to 300,000 in the Midwest, Fargo is the only city that elected all five city commissioners on an at-large basis.


Most have city councils with members elected by wards or a mixture of wards and at-large members, he said.

Of the governing bodies in the 20 cities he examined from Michigan to Montana, he said, all have at least seven members, with the lone exceptions being Fargo and Bismarck. Bismarck, he said, isn't 100,000 people but he added it in for comparison purposes.

Fargo, he added, has the fourth largest commissioner to resident ratio, Johnson said, at one commissioner for every 25,200 residents. The average is about one to 18,000.

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