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Ballot mystery unravels

Fargo City Auditor Steve Sprague said Tuesday he made a mistake when he placed a question regarding the publishing of City Commission minutes on the Nov. 2 election ballot.

Fargo City Auditor Steve Sprague said Tuesday he made a mistake when he placed a question regarding the publishing of City Commission minutes on the Nov. 2 election ballot.

At the same time, Sprague said the city doesn't have a policy on who must approve ballot questions for placement -- something Mayor Bruce Furness also acknowledged Tuesday and said needs to be changed so such a mess doesn't happen again.

"We screwed up," Furness said. "It's unfortunate."

The following question was mistakenly placed on the ballot: "Shall the minutes of the Fargo City Commission meetings be published in the official newspaper at taxpayer expense? Yes? No?"

The same question -- minus the phrase "at taxpayer expense" -- also was on the June 2004 city election ballot. Seventy-eight percent voted "yes" to publish the minutes.

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North Dakota law says this question should be put to a vote of the people every four years, but Sprague and others who saw the ballot before it went to print say they weren't aware of the four-year stipulation.

The bigger concern for Fargo City Commissioner Linda Coates, however, is that the City Commission was never asked to approve the question for the ballot.

"This whole thing is dreadful," Coates said.

John Strand, publisher of the alternative weekly High Plains Reader, noticed the measure and pointed it out to the city Monday.

No one knew how or why the question got on the ballot. Commissioner Mike Williams said he was shocked, but he disagrees that the city lacks policy on the issue. Nothing can legally be placed on the ballot without going through the commission, he said, referring to the city's Home Rule Charter.

"It's not that the process isn't there," he said. "It just wasn't used."

But city officials interpret the charter different ways. It addresses initiated ordinances and initiated measures, but it doesn't make specific reference to general ballot questions, like this one, required by the state.

Even if the issue wasn't supposed to be on the ballot until 2008, City Attorney Garylle Stewart said Sprague didn't overstep his authority.

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Historically, not every question on the ballot has been put there by the City Commission, Stewart said.

Either way, Sprague said he wishes he would have gone to commissioners. He just didn't know it was needed. Sprague didn't seek approval for the 2000 or 2004 elections and no one complained.

In both cases, and with this current situation, Sprague said he was going by state law, which says the city auditor is responsible for preparing the ballot.

Sprague isn't alone in this situation, either.

Stewart knew of Sprague's plan to place the issue on the ballot, though Stewart said it wasn't something he scrutinized.

The measure also went through County Auditor Mike Montplaisir, who said he assumed the city's elected officials had approved it.

In addition, Furness and City Commissioner John Cosgriff say discussions about publishing City Commission minutes have been ongoing at City Hall since spring. Both say they've been in on some conversations.

In fact, before the June election Furness proposed the City Commission begin a public campaign to inform voters of the cost of printing the minutes and advocate a "no" vote on the measure.

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Furness said voters might not approve the measure if they knew it cost them about $35,000 a year and that the minutes could be found on the city's Web site.

But North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said then the commission can't advocate a "no" vote because the board is comprised of elected officials. He also said argumentative language cannot be used on ballot questions.

Though Furness said Tuesday he hasn't changed his opinion on the issue, he said he wasn't part of any decision or consensus to put this issue on the ballot and did not tell Sprague to do it.

This was done by Sprague, and Furness said he will address the ramifications of that with his employee today.

Even though the ballot mystery is starting to unfold, it's still not entirely clear how or why the phrase "at taxpayer expense" was added or why city officials were even having discussions about adding that language since they already had been warned against including the cost of publishing the minutes on the ballot.

What is clear is that it's too late to fix the mistake.

"There is no way to get this off the ballot," Stenehjem said Tuesday.

Sprague said he isn't sure what the cost would be to reprint the ballots, but there's not enough time with the election less than a week away.

What all of this means for voters is something city commissioners are still trying assess.

One solution might be for the city to place signs at all the ballot boxes giving them directions, Coates said.

It's now a matter of how to nullify it and how to inform the public, Williams said.

"It's nonbinding and it's illegal," he said of the question and vote.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mary Jo Almquist at (701) 241-5531

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