Commissioner Piepkorn Defends His Letter on Economic Incentives, Calls Commissioner Gehrig “A Huge Disappointment”

Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn Dave Wallis / The Forum

There is a hot debate over economic incentives happening down in the Legislature right now, but an even hotter debate has erupted among Fargo city leaders over who should get to say what about that issue.

Earlier this month Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig was raked over the coals by critics because he, along with a city commissioner from Bismarck, signed a letter to state lawmakers critical of economic incentives policy.

Even though the first sentence in the letter (see it here) made it clear that Gehrig and Bismarck Commissioner Steve Marquardt were not representing the official position of their city government’s, the fact that Gehrig used City of Fargo letterhead was castigated.

“The reality is that no one would give a fig what Gehrig had to say were he not a Fargo city commissioner,” the Fargo Forum editorialized under the headline “Gehrig violates trust.”

“His voice is amplified only because he sits on the governing body of the state’s largest city,” the paper continued. “As such, he can’t play fast and loose with the fact—the fact—that when he lobbies the Legislature about tax policy, he is in effect representing the city of Fargo. Legislators who received his anti-incentives letter on official Fargo letterhead see Fargo, not Gehrig alone, even though he said in his letter he did not represent the city.”

“He’s been a huge disappointment,” Piepkorn said, referring to Gehrig.

But in a letter dated February 17, sent on City of Fargo letterhead, Mayor Tim Mahoney and Commissioner Dave Piepkorn wrote legislative leaders in favor of economic incentive programs. Essentially the opposite point of view of Gehrig’s.

They even represent their letter as the position of the City of Fargo, making no mention of Gehrig’s dissent (read it in full below).

I spoke with Commissioner Piepkorn this morning about the letter, and he defended it.

“We are representing the view of the majority,” he told me, adding that Gehrig’s letter “wasn’t approved.” He did admit, when I asked, that this more recent letter wasn’t voted on by the commission either.

“Tony represented his view as the City of Fargo,” Piepkorn told me. When I pointed out that the first sentence of Gehrig’s letter was a disclaimer that it did not represent the city Piepkorn dismissed it as “playing games.”

“He’s been a huge disappointment,” Piepkorn said, referring to Gehrig.

“Dave and I agree more than we disagree,” Gehrig said when I reached him about Piepkorn’s “disappointment” comment. “I’ll assume he didn’t mean what he said.”

I don’t agree with Piepkorn’s stance on economic incentive programs, but I respect his work overall as a commissioner. What I don’t understand is his reaction, echoed by others including the Forum, to Gehrig’s letter.

Is it not ok for officials elected to city government to express their views to the legislature? Even if their views might be in the minority of whatever government body they’re elected to?

If Gehrig had tried to claim that he was speaking for the entire city government then the criticism of him would be valid, but he didn’t. He made it clear, in the first sentence of his letter, that the views were his and Marquardt’s alone. Saying that the use of City of Fargo letterhead is somehow evidence of Gehrig’s intent to deceive is weak sauce.

The politics of economic incentives aside, I didn’t see a problem with Gehrig and Marquardt’s letter. I don’t see a problem with Piepkorn and Mahoney’s letter, either.

Gehrig’s critics should engage his arguments, not try to undermine his ability to express them.

Here’s the letter Piepkorn and Mahoney sent. Again, you can read Gehrig’s letter at this link.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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