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No surprise, votes invalid

A North Dakota attorney general's opinion Thursday confirmed what city officials and the public already suspected regarding a misplaced Fargo ballot question.

A North Dakota attorney general's opinion Thursday confirmed what city officials and the public already suspected regarding a misplaced Fargo ballot question.

The Nov. 2 measure relating to the publishing of City Commission meeting minutes was unlawfully placed on the ballot, and any voting results on the measure are "of no legal effect," wrote Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

As printed, the ballot question reads: "Shall the minutes of the Fargo City Commission meetings be published in the official newspaper at taxpayer expense? Yes? No?"

Fargo voters overwhelmingly approved the minutes measure during the June 2004 election, though the language then did not include the phrase "at taxpayer expense."

That statement has raised concerns considering a 2002 attorney general's opinion that says cities can't include the estimated publication cost on the ballot.

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The opinion also said: "If argumentation, promises or coercive statements should be permitted on the face of the ballot, one could not predict the limits of such practice and the confusion, which may ensue."

State law says the minutes question should only appear on the ballot every four years.

"The minutes shall continue to be published until disapproved at a succeeding quadrennial election," the opinion states.

But that language is what tripped up the city in the first place, according to City Auditor Steve Sprague, who says he made a mistake by placing the measure on the ballot.

BALLOT JUMP

Sprague said he thought the question could go on the "succeeding" election ballot but wasn't aware of the four-year stipulation.

City Attorney Garylle Stewart and Cass County Auditor Mike Montplaisir either saw the ballot question or knew it would be placed there and also did not catch the error.

Fargo city commissioners said they weren't part of the decision to place the issue on the ballot and only realized the problem this week.

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Sprague suggested Monday that the vote could be used as a straw poll to gauge public opinion. In other words, the city could see if residents would vote the issue down this time, knowing their taxpayer dollars would be used to publish the minutes.

Although straw votes have long been recognized in North Dakota, they are "nonbinding and without legal effect," the Thursday opinion states. A board also "may not seek an advisory opinion or straw vote of the electorate on matters not within its statutory or constitutional authority."

North Dakota newspapers have been keeping close tabs on the issue all week since the outcome could set a precedent for other cities that might try to reverse votes to save taxpayer money.

Such a move could cost newspapers, especially smaller ones that rely heavily on money generated from publishing meeting minutes.

Forum Editor Lou Ziegler said he's disappointed in the city of Fargo.

"The city should have known better," Ziegler said. "I think it was a calculated decision on more than one person's part."

Fargo voters still will vote on the issue Nov. 2 because it is too late to strike the question from the ballots.

City officials were preparing precinct signs Thursday that said the question shouldn't be on the ballot and that the results of the vote will not be used.

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Mayor Bruce Furness, who has been a vocal opponent of publishing commission minutes at taxpayer expense, said the situation doesn't make the city look good, but nothing can be done to change it at this point.

"It makes us look stupid," he said.

Furness said he realizes some might view the situation as suspicious, but noted there was nothing underhanded about it. No one will be subject to any disciplinary action, he said.

"We view it as an honest mistake," Furness said.

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

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