The City of Fargo is holding a vote on a special assessment to pay for a share of a flood diversion project, but the way the vote works is a little strange. Basically, the votes have been allotted among government entities and property owners. “Twenty-one government entities, most notably Cass County, will cast 483 million of the total 759 million votes,” the Fargo Forum reported in March. The remaining votes would be divided up among the 49,900 property owners in the area.
So already the people are at a disadvantage to the government entities in this vote. If all of the government entities vote for the special assessment, they win no matter how the property owners vote. But if that sort of rigged vote wasn’t enough, it seems the Mayor of Fargo isn’t above twisting some arms in the business community to get the outcome he wants.
Acting Mayor Tim Mahoney, who was appointed to replace deceased former Mayor Denny Walaker earlier this year and is currently running to be elected to a term of his own, sent out the letter below to a prominent business owner in Fargo who wishes to remain anonymous for reasons that should be obvious in a moment.
The letter is problematic for a couple of reasons.
First, it was sent on official City of Fargo letterhead, and may not be legal because state law prohibits the use of taxpayer resources for political activities. Chapter 16.1-10 of the Century Code states that it is a “corrupt practice” to “use any property belonging to or leased by, or any service which is provided to or carried on by, either directly or by contract, the state or any agency, department, bureau, board, commission, or political subdivision thereof, for any political purpose.”
I think it would be fair to say that the Mayor instructing business owners how to vote is a political purpose. The problem is that while “political purpose” in the law includes ballot measures, I’m not sure this vote with its strange methodology would qualify as such.
But if not a violation of the letter of the law, certainly this seems to be a violation of the spirit of the law. The Mayor ought not be using his official resources to campaign. In a similar incident earlier this year I caught House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad (D-Parshall) fundraising for Democrats on official legislative letterhead. He admitted to the wrong-doing after I wrote about it.
Yet this situation with Mahoney’s letter is worse than a possible corrupt practices violation. Check out this passage from the letter, highlighted by its recipient, and tell me this doesn’t sound like a veiled threat:
That sort of intimidation is exactly the reason why most elections do use the secret ballot.
I spoke with Mahoney this afternoon about the letter, and he verified its authenticity and defended it saying the intent was merely to inform business owners that the vote is a public record.
“That letter was about some confusion about people’s vote being public,” he told me. “Some people thought that if they voted would could happen is that their vote could never be made public.”
Money said that some business owners had thanked him for the letter because they were confused on the issue. I asked Mahoney if he thought the letter was appropriate in light of state law, and in light of the fact that the business owners are being told how the Mayor would like them to vote in the same letter they’re being told their vote is public, and he said yes.
“It’s appropriate if you’re letting business owners know whether their vote is public.”
Here’s the full letter: