Much Ado About Letterhead: What Is the Fargo Forum So Afraid Of?


Fargo, N.D., City Commissioner Tony Gehrig listens to Commissioner Dave Piepkorn speak about Gehrig's plan to cut the city's property taxes by 20-percent during a city commissioner's meeting at the Civic Center on Monday, July 20, 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum

“Gehrig violates trust”

That was the headline of a Fargo Forum editorial published online yesterday which chastised City Commissioner Tony Gehrig for sending a letter to state lawmakers on City of Fargo letterhead.

Bismarck City Commissioner Steve Marquardt co-signed the letter which was critical of tax incentive programs. The commissioners argued that these programs are overused and dubious in their efficacy.

You can read the letter below. I believe the first time it was published was here on SAB last week.

Anyway the Forum – which frequently makes the fiscally conservative Gehrig a target of their ire – is upset about Gehrig’s use of the letterhead.

“The reality is that no one would give a fig what Gehrig had to say were he not a Fargo city commissioner,” the Forum argues. “His voice is amplified only because he sits on the governing body of the state’s largest city. 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.”

This seems awfully petty, though perhaps revealing. I suspect the folks at the Forum are worried that Gehrig’s righteous arguments against tax incentives are gaining traction, so rather than rebut those arguments they seize on what is at best a very minor infraction in using city letterhead.

Except, is it really an infraction?

Both Gehrig and Marquardt are lawfully elected leaders in their respective city governments. Everyone in the Legislature knows this. It’s no big secret, nor should Gehrig or Marquardt be obliged to keep it a secret. They can and should speak on public policy impacting their communities, representing themselves as elected leaders of those communities.

What’s more the letter was careful to state, in no uncertain terms, that it reflected the views of Gehrig and Marquardt and not the official position of their city governments. In fact, that was literally the very first sentence in the letter:

If two elected leaders in two of North Dakota’s largest communities want to speak out on economic development policy the proper response should be a rebuttal of their arguments not a small-minded, intemperate belittlement of the perfectly reasonable vehicle for their message.

I understand that leaders like Gehrig are apostates in local government. People who believe local leaders shouldn’t be promoting “economic development” by handing out grab bags of taxpayer cash to any business that can fill out the right forms. But they make valid arguments representing the views of thousands of North Dakotans.

Personal attacks from local media just make it seem like they’re winning the argument.

Gehrig didn’t violate anyone’s trust. At worst, his letter shows that the City of Fargo may ought to consider getting their commissioners individualized letterhead.

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