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Fargo commissioner voted to put employer on city panel

FARGO - City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik voted on Monday to put the CEO of the Plains Art Museum on a new public arts commission. That's not unusual because Colleen Sheehy was a member of the public arts task force that recommended creating the ...

Fargo City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik
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FARGO – City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik voted on Monday to put the CEO of the Plains Art Museum on a new public arts commission.

That’s not unusual because Colleen Sheehy was a member of the public arts task force that recommended creating the arts commission, and many of the new arts commissioners also served on the task force.

What’s a little unusual is that Sobolik, who convinced the City Commission to create the task force, recently started working for Sheehy as the museum’s development director.

Sobolik declined to speak to The Forum about whether voting on the appointment was a conflict of interest.  

“I understand you have talked to the city attorney regarding the appointments to the Art and Culture Commission,” she said in an email. “I have nothing more to add. Thanks.”


City Attorney Erik Johnson said several state attorney general’s opinions have established a “fairly significant threshold” for conflicts of interest in North Dakota. He said state law requires that public officials not vote on matters in which they have direct interest.

Acting Mayor Tim Mahoney, who nominated the members of the public arts commission with Sobolik’s input, said he picked Sheehy, an “obvious choice” as the leader of an important arts institution.

In the past, Mahoney has recused himself from voting on matters affecting Essentia Health when he was employed by Essentia, and he said he did ask Sobolik if she thought her vote might be a conflict.

He said she didn’t think it would be.

The Century Code states that an official in a government body who has “direct and substantial personal or pecuniary interest” in a matter before that body must disclose their interest and may not vote on the matter without the consent of the body’s majority.

In a 1995 opinion, then-Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp explored what “direct and substantial persona or pecuniary interest” means because the Century Code doesn’t define those terms. The law she was analyzing passed that same year.

Her opinion has been quoted in several more recent opinions by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Heitkamp was asked if an employee of a state institution of higher education may vote as a member of a city governing body on an issue involving the institution. She quoted several legal authorities in stating that a “direct interest” is one that is “certain, and not contingent or doubtful,” “substantial” means “of considerable value” and “pecuniary interest” means a “direct interest related to money in an action or case.”


“The fact that the member is employed by a party involved in a matter before the city governing body is not enough,” Heitkamp wrote in Opinion 95-F-06. “There must be some significant, certain interest of personal or financial benefit to the member that runs directly between the member and the matter.”

Since it appeared that the member’s employment did not depend on how he or she voted, Heitkamp wrote that the vote would not have provided any substantial financial benefit. It’s possible that the member’s employer would reward him or her for making the vote, but that did not appear to be a certainty so there was no direct benefit.


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