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For Fargo City Commission, a shift in the balance of power

FARGO - City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn is ecstatic about the results of Tuesday's special election and he wasn't even running. "This is a seismic election," he said Wednesday. "I'm so happy. I've been on the minority ever since I've been on the ...

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Tony Gehrig. David Sampson / The Forum

FARGO - City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn is ecstatic about the results of Tuesday's special election and he wasn't even running.

"This is a seismic election," he said Wednesday. "I'm so happy. I've been on the minority ever since I've been on the commission."

The balance of power may be about to change with the election of Tony Gehrig, a Libertarian who has promised to rein in spending and cut taxes. He was the frontrunner in a pack of six candidates, receiving 22.3 percent of the vote.

Gehrig and Piepkorn said they think they have a lot in common, even if they won't always vote exactly alike. Of the four current commissioners, Gehrig said he agrees most often with Piepkorn followed by Mike Williams.

But it's the latter whom Gehrig said he thinks will have the most influence of the five commissioners. "There's going to be a lot of times where Mike Williams is going to be the swing vote," he said. "Anybody who pays attention to the commission knows that's the way it's going to be."

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Mayor Tim Mahoney, Commissioner Melissa Sobolik tended to vote together with former Mayor Dennis Walaker, who died in December, while Piepkorn and Williams have more often been dissenters.

Broad consensus

From his campaign rhetoric, it's clear that Gehrig expects to make a splash. Time and again, he's railed against the commission's priorities. Why, he asked, are commissioners talking about a new taxpayer-funded convention center when the city still needs a new south-end fire station? Why are they putting the new City Hall building on valuable downtown land that could be used for private development?

But the fact is the City Commission has been a model of consensus in recent years. Of the nearly 2,000 votes the commission has taken since the start of 2012, it has voted unanimously 97 percent of the time.

The maverick of the bunch was Williams, who was the lone dissenting vote 19 times during those nearly 2,000 votes, which is less than 1 percent of the votes he's taken.

Piepkorn was the lone dissenting vote 10 times out of more than 750 votes, less than 2 percent of the votes he's taken. He had fewer votes because he was off the commission for two years after losing to Sobolik and Williams.

The commission's amicable record suggests that Williams' swing votes won't happen that often. He was the swing vote four times and paired up with Piepkorn against the other commissioners five times.

Critical votes

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Still, when that swing vote does happen, it could be a critical vote.

Earlier this week, Williams might have been the swing vote if Gehrig had been on the commission. Williams pushed his colleagues to vote again on a controversial special assessment for the proposed Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion because he felt the votes of property owners would be drowned out by the millions of votes the city and county had. Piepkorn agreed with him, but it would have been a tied vote and gotten nowhere.

Gehrig said Wednesday he would have sided with Williams and Piepkorn. With popular sentiment against the assessment, that might have been enough to sink it.

Williams said he can see himself voting with Gehrig on issues such as cutting the cost of city services, but he noted that his understanding of why costs are high is different.

The bike trails on city streets and the public arts commission that Gehrig complains about take up less than a percent of the city's total budget, Williams said. The real costs come from serving sprawl areas where more miles of roads and sewers are needed to serve fewer taxpayers, he said.

Gehrig, who favors free market solutions, has called Fargo's sprawl a "myth."

Though Gehrig said he expects to side more with Piepkorn, he's optimistic he'll have something in common with other commissioners, even with Sobolik, someone he sees as his opposite. She voted against a ban on panhandling, he said, and he would have done the same on individual-liberty grounds.

Related Topics: FARGO CITY HALL
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