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Port: In Fargo, a contemptible display of incumbency protection that ought to concern the whole state

Should people with business before the Fargo City Commission have to worry about their personal politics inviting attacks from the city's elected leaders?

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Tim Mahoney officially announces his candidacy for Fargo mayor during a news conference at the Dr. James Carlson Library.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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MINOT, N.D. — During a recent meeting of the Fargo City Commission, a routine matter around a tax increment finance district was blown up into a petty and vicious exercise in political recrimination .

It was perhaps the most nakedly brazen act of incumbency protection I've seen in nearly two decades of covering North Dakota politics, and not a single resident of Fargo, whatever their opinions about the development in question, ought to be happy about what they saw.

Local elected leaders from around the state ought to be concerned, too, given that the abuse of power Fargo leaders should put on display could prompt a backlash from state leaders against local autonomy.

If local leaders are going to abuse these powers, should they get to wield them?

At issue is a residential development under construction by Jim Roers, who also happens to be a Republican state senator from a Fargo-area district.

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Let's begin with some back story, for those of you who need to catch up.

The Roers project was a somewhat controversial proposal when first announced, with residents in a nearby neighborhood of mostly single-family homes worried about congestion from the denser housing (read: apartments) Roers wanted to develop.

These sort of concerns aren't unusual in the development game. After some negotiation, an accord was reached. Part of the compromise allowing the proposal to go forward was a row of townhouses to be built as a buffer between the new apartments and the existing neighborhood. The townhouses would also represent the sort of less-dense housing existing residents prefer.

The development received approval from city leaders for $997,500 of tax increment financing over 15 years at 5% interest.

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Most of the development is done, but the townhouses haven't been built yet. Roers told me his company hasn't received any payments from the TIF agreement to date.

Here's where things get sticky.

Per the agreement between Roers and the city, the project was to have been completed in December of last year. It's not done, obviously, and Roers says the problem has been a number of factors from labor shortages to materials shortages to the skyrocketing cost of both in the COVID-19 era. His company was using the area where the townhouses are to be built as staging for the rest of the project, which is why they haven't been constructed yet.

Whatever the circumstances, the delay didn't seem to be a big deal to city officials. Roers said they never served notice on him about it.

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These sort of delays aren't unusual. Development is a complicated business, and the construction industry can be unpredictable. As one recent example, the city of Fargo amended financial agreements with the developers behind the Block 9 project numerous times due to delays .

Which brings us to the ugly city commission meeting from earlier this week at which Roers was ambushed, accused of lying and greed , by a bunch of elected city leaders who have big political incentives to drag him through the mud.

Roers was before the commission to discuss the construction delays, and to see if his company could receive a prorated portion of the TIF money for the parts of the project that were completed since those parts represent enough value on their own to satisfy the TIF agreement.

Roers told me he was not expecting the meeting to be controversial, and at no point has he ever considered giving up on developing the townhouses.

But that's not how Mayor Tim Mahoney and commissioners Dave Piepkorn, Arlette Preston and John Strand chose to view things.

"I think he’s lied to all of us," an intemperate Piepkorn said during the uncomfortable meeting, at one point suggesting that Roers could be forced to tear down the apartment housing they've already constructed and build single-family homes, which is such a ridiculously extreme reaction that it should have prompted laughter.

“It’s all based on trust. And I’m sorry, but in this case, the trust has been broken,” Preston also said during the meeting.

Why did Mahoney, Preston and Piepkorn, in particular, react this way to what would otherwise have been a boring example of the pedestrian challenges of development?

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Remember, Roers' daughter, Shannon Roers Jones, who is also a state lawmaker, and who also works for his development company, is running for mayor against Mahoney.

Preston, too, is running for mayor, and Piepkorn is running for re-election to the commission and trying to stand out in a crowded field of 15 candidates.

Piepkorn made sure to include a smear of Roers Jones and her campaign during his tirade. “And the scary thing is, his daughter is running for mayor," he said . "Imagine if two months from now, we had a new mayor. Do you think we would have heard about any of this? I think it would have all gone away."

Is this really how we want the government to function in North Dakota?

Should people with business before the Fargo City Commission have to worry about their personal politics inviting attacks from the city's elected leaders?

The answer, of course, is "no." Even if we stipulate to the idea that Roers and his company have been remiss in some way with this development — and I'm not at all sure that's a fair conclusion — couldn't the city's elected leaders have handled it in a more professional and responsible way?

Remember, they haven't paid Roers a dime of TIF money on this project. He was asking for a prorated payment of TIF dollars, and they could have just told him "no," without the histrionics, requesting that the townhouses be built first.

Instead, they called him a liar and a cheat, not because he actually lied or cheated, but because it served the political interests of a majority of the city commission say he did.

That, my friends, is an abuse of power.

The opposite of the sort of leadership we should want in any elected office.

North Dakotans like to think of their state as a place where things can get done. A place where it's easy to do business. In Fargo, our state's largest community, local leaders are sending the opposite message.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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