The tragic and untimely death of former Mayor Dennis Walaker has unexpectedly come back to haunt Fargo City Hall. When Walaker died, then Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney assumed the role of mayor and later was elected to the position in a special election.
That history is being revisited because of questions of whether Fargo’s city charter bars another mayoral term for Mahoney, whose term ends next June.
Fargo City Attorney Erik Johnson believes Mahoney, who was elected to three terms as a city commissioner, will be ineligible for another term as mayor because of term limits.
But how many terms has Mahoney served? The question isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Mahoney resigned his commission seat to run for mayor in a special election in April 2015 and finished the term that Walaker originally had been elected to serve. Then Mahoney was elected to a four-year term in June 2018.
The mayor would like to seek another term in the June 2022 city election. Fargo’s city charter holds that a person can serve only three terms on the City Commission as a commissioner; a fourth term, as mayor, also is possible.
Mahoney was elected to three terms on the City Commission, in 2006, 2010 and 2014, but he didn’t finish his third term, which he resigned to run for mayor.
Johnson’s official opinion is that term limits bar Mahoney from running again for mayor, but he concedes that his legal opinion isn’t enforceable and the issue could be decided in court.
Mahoney has obtained separate legal opinions from two private lawyers — former Grand Forks City Attorney Howard Swanson and Fargo lawyer Tami Norgard — both of whom concluded that Mahoney is eligible to seek another term as mayor.
As Johnson has pointed out, this question could be resolved if the City Commission passed an ordinance to amend the city charter. It’s unlikely that those who drafted the city charter ever considered a situation in which a mayor’s death in office would cause this kind of term-limit ambiguity.
But it’s really not so complicated. Mahoney’s terms weren’t successive because he had to resign his city commission seat to run for mayor. His final term as city commissioner and his first term as mayor weren’t complete terms.
Commissioners decided to form a task force to study the issue. They should clean up the charter to clarify that a commissioner who finishes the term of a mayor who doesn’t complete his term won’t run afoul of the term limit.
They should not, however, follow Commissioner Tony Gehrig’s suggestion to switch from a five-member commission form of government, whose members are elected at-large, to an aldermanic council, with members elected to represent a district.
Fargo has flourished under the commission form of government. Each commissioner oversees a department or area — such as police or planning — but looks out for the city as a whole. There’s no clamor to change a system that’s worked well. Quite simply, there’s no reason to fix something that’s not broken.
Mahoney, who was unopposed when he ran in 2018, has been an excellent mayor. Fargo has advanced and run smoothly during his tenure. The city is a beacon that is thriving and attracting new residents and businesses.
Frankly, no commissioner has reached Mahoney’s stature. The city is in capable hands. If the term-limit question hasn’t been resolved by amending the city charter, Mahoney would be well within his rights to take his case to court.
Fargo would emerge the winner if his view prevails and he can run for another term.
Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.