Fergus Falls voting ordinance stalled
Two groups of residents in Fergus Falls, Minn., are at odds over an ordinance requiring voters to approve projects that would raise their taxes. In turn, it's spurred a lawsuit against the city and stalled a referendum slated for next month. The ...
Two groups of residents in Fergus Falls, Minn., are at odds over an ordinance requiring voters to approve projects that would raise their taxes.
In turn, it's spurred a lawsuit against the city and stalled a referendum slated for next month.
The ordeal started last December by a group upset with what they felt was a lack of public input on big-ticket city projects.
The group, Fergus Votes, was started largely over community division on whether the city should financially support a new hockey arena.
"Circumventing voter approval on city debt has been the rock in the shoe for many years," said business owner Daryl Synstelien of Fergus Votes. "It's just not right."
So, the group presented the city with a petition, proposing an ordinance that requires voters to approve projects costing more than $1 million and requiring tax increases.
But, last month, the City Council voted down the ordinance, 7-to-1 - the lone supporter being Synstelien's brother, Randy.
The issue was then sent to a public vote set for April 22. That is, until another group of residents stepped in.
The group, Grow Fergus Falls, sued the city March 4, disputing the legality of the law.
"If we're right, we've saved the city $13,000," their attorney, Steve Rufer, said of the estimated cost of an election. "If we're wrong, the election goes ahead."
City Attorney Rolf Nycklemoe said he, too, had concerns about its constitutionality.
Yet, "the city attorney's office is not arguing for or against the proposed legislation," he said. "We are just kind of here in the middle, following whatever the court is going to determine."
This week, Otter Tail County Judge Mark Hansen issued a temporary restraining order, halting the election.
A hearing is scheduled for June 23.
In the meantime, those opposing the ordinance will prepare a case.
"We're not saying that people shouldn't be part of a representative government," said lawyer Chad Felstul. "But we elect leaders to do that."
If the ordinance is approved, Rufer said Fergus Falls would be the only city in Minnesota with such a law and it'd ultimately slow the city's economic growth.
"It would cripple the city, possibly forever," he said.
Whether the ordinance will slow building the city's hockey arena, though, both he and City Administrator Mark Sievert weren't sure.
Last year, the City Council committed $4 million for a new arena.
That was the last straw for Synstelien and others, prompting a petition signed by more than 900 citizens.
Now, no matter the outcome, it likely won't be the last the council hears of him.
"Somehow, I don't think I'm going to shrug this off," he said, adding this has fueled discussion citywide over government's role. "This is the first time in many years we've had this public dialogue."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515