FARGO - It's the final countdown for the contested Fargo City Commission race, and the election's right around the corner on Tuesday, June 12.
Voters will pick two commission members from a slate of nine candidates for the city's governing board, which is comprised of four commissioners and Mayor Tim Mahoney, who is running unopposed for a second term.
The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber hosted an hourlong forum for the candidates Wednesday, June 6, with a format unlike any other here this election cycle. Local attorney and Chamber member Mark Western served as moderator with a list of prepared questions, as well as a few from the audience. But instead of every candidate responding to each question, only four answered before the next four candidates were presented with the next question.
Kicking off the forum, candidates were asked about their stance on Fargo being a sanctuary city, or a city that limits cooperation with enforcing immigration laws to lessen fears of deportation.
Candidates Linda Boyd and Liz Maddock-Johnson said while Fargo is too small for such a designation, they support welcoming new Americans with services provided by schools and law enforcement agencies.
Incumbent Tony Gehrig and former state Sen. Tim Flakoll firmly said they don't support Fargo being a sanctuary city, but they said the city needs to be diverse and welcoming.
Incumbent Dave Piepkorn, who has previously voiced concerns about refugee resettlement and Lutheran Social Services, which coordinates such resettlement in North Dakota, would've been the next candidate in line to answer the question. However, Western shifted the conversation to another high-profile topic in Fargo: special assessments.
Other hot topics, including flood protection and downtown's supposed "reputation of being a drunken place," Western said, got many of the candidates on the same page.
Arlette Preston, who lives downtown, said the city needs to balance residences and entertainment in the neighborhood. She was on the commission from 1992 to 2000, when the city implemented the Renaissance Zone to encourage business development downtown.
Piepkorn said before those tax incentives were offered, nothing was going on downtown.
"This is where people want to come and have fun, and that's a good thing," he said.
One candidate who had been largely absent from previous forums, Lenny Tweeden, participated in Wednesday's panel. The LGBTQ activist is known locally for operating Fargo's first gay bar, My Place, during the 1980s.
Tweeden took time during his opening and closing statements to address two issues in the city. First, he said the structure of a council form of government, with designated wards rather than an at-large commission, would be better to ensure the whole city has representation. Tweeden also said he considers the public transportation MATBUS to be "a system in chaos" with "high employee termination rate."
Former commissioner Mike Williams and Tweeden both responded to an audience question about staying competitive with surrounding towns by saying they see the greater Fargo-Moorhead community working together.
"Our competition is Denver, Portland and Minneapolis," Williams said.
The idea of a new performing arts center and convention center divided the panel, with some, like Gehrig, saying the developments are not a priority and the city has more pressing needs. Piepkorn promoted both projects and suggested the convention center should be located at the Moorhead Center Mall.
Many candidates encouraged those in the audience to vote early, which can be done this week at three designated polling locations throughout Cass County.
Candidate Kelan Oster did not attend Wednesday's forum.