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Judge rules Fargo mayor can run for another term

The drawn out battle over Mahoney's eligibility for another term resolved in his favor Tuesday

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Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney’s attorney Tami Norgard speaks to Judge Stephannie Stiel on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, at the Cass County Courthouse. The city of Fargo has asked Stiel to decide whether city ordinance prevents Mahoney from seeking re-election in June. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — A Cass County District Court judge filed an order on Tuesday Nov. 9, that clears the way for Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney to be on the ballot in the June 2022 city election.

Judge Stephannie Stiel was asked to rule on the eligibility question by the Fargo City Commission, which received an opinion from City Attorney Erik Johnson that Mahoney was not eligible to run for reelection based on city election rules.

Stiel recently listened to oral arguments in the case from Tami Norgard, an attorney representing Mahoney, and Ian McLean, an attorney representing the city of Fargo.

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Cass County District Court Judge Stephannie Stiel asks questions of Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney’s attorney, Tami Norgard, on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

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Both attorneys had already provided Stiel with written arguments.

Stiel said after the oral argument hearing that she would provide a written opinion as soon as possible and it came pretty quickly.

The mayor said Tuesday night that he was very pleased that the judge agreed that two partial terms made him eligible to run again as the case centered around term limits and wording in the city's charter.

In presenting her arguments, Norgard cited "the canon of democracy," which she said is a body of decided case law that asserts a presumption of eligibility exists in cases where restrictions on eligibility are unclear.

Under that doctrine, she said, "If it's not clear that he (Mahoney) can't run, then I think he should be allowed to run."

The judge agreed.

The charter's term limit language states that a commissioner can't serve more than three consecutive four-year terms in office, but if he or she was elected mayor they could serve another four years for a total of four terms.

In a 21-page ruling, Stiel added that Mahoney's service from 2014 to 2018, consisting of two partial terms when he took over for former Mayor Dennis Walaker who died in office, "cannot be considered in determining his eligibility for election. Excluding these partial terms, Mahoney would be serving his third successive four-year term and would be eligible to serve another term and be placed on the ballot as a mayoral candidate in the city's June 2022 election."

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She also said in conclusion there was "nothing in the city's home-rule charter or city ordinance that suggests a term would end other than after four years of service."

Mahoney, a physician who is in his 46th year of surgery and currently working part-time at a Fergus Falls hospital, said he plans to retire from his medical career next year.

He said he will certainly be filing for another term when filings for the mayor's job and two City Commission seats open early next year.

The mayor said there's so much that he's been working on and would like to continue to help with such issues as the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion, the Red River water supply project, improving older core neighborhoods, affordable housing and smart growth as the city continues to quickly develop.

Mahoney said he's "always had a natural curiosity for how we can do things better," and that's what he would also like to see for the city.

The court became involved in the question of Mahoney's eligibility as a candidate last summer after the city commission directed the city attorney's office to file a petition with the court asking whether city code prevents Mahoney's name from being placed on the June primary ballot.

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The petition arose from a difference of opinion between City Attorney Erik Johnson and Mahoney, as Johnson maintained Mahoney is not eligible to run again based on the city code, while Mahoney said that was not the case.

Those two exceptions to the basic three-term rule created a question in Mahoney's case, because although he has been on the city commission since September of 2005, that tenure is a result of a mixture of regular and special elections.

McLean said during his oral argument that city election rules can give rise to different interpretations, and he described the eligibility question as a "good faith dispute."

He said, however, that any interpretation that argues for allowing someone to serve more than four successive terms on the city commission was not a reasonable interpretation of city election rules.

According to information the city filed with the court:

Mahoney first became a member of the city commission on Sept. 27, 2005, following his victory in a special city election to fill a vacancy on the commission, with the remainder of that term being less than four years.

In 2006, 2010 and 2014, Mahoney was reelected to serve full four-year terms. He was also appointed deputy mayor in 2008.

Walaker died in December 2014, and Mahoney began serving as acting mayor.

The city set a special election for April 28, 2015, to elect someone to serve out the remainder of Walaker's June 2014 to June 2018 mayoral term.

As required by the city charter provision, in late January of 2015 Mahoney resigned his city commission office, with the resignation to take effect two weeks after the special election.

At the same time, Mahoney submitted a petition to run for mayor, and he won.

According to the petition, Mahoney became mayor on May 12, 2015, the same day his resignation as city commissioner took effect. Tony Gehrig became a city commissioner that same day, as well, filling the seat vacated by Mahoney's resignation as a commissioner.

In June 2018, Mahoney was reelected to serve a four-year term as mayor, which commenced in June of 2018 and expires in June of 2022.

Prior to the city filing the petition in August, Johnson reiterated a stand he put in writing several years ago holding that Mahoney had reached the end of his eligibility to run again, either for the mayoral seat or a new term on the city commission.

In an opinion he provided the commission this summer, Johnson acknowledged the city rule that states "any member elected to a term of less than four years as a result of a vacancy on the board shall be eligible to serve three additional four-year terms" could be interpreted in a way that supports an argument that the mayor is eligible to run again.

However, he said, that interpretation fails to hold up given the full wording of the city's term limit rules, which go on to state that any member who has served as mayor as well as city commissioner may not serve more than four successive four-year terms.

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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