Tech glitch prevents city board quorum, leaving taxpayer appeals hanging

The days of government entities meeting remotely online without an opportunity for constituents to be in the room are thankfully a thing of the past. Yet one vestige of the pandemic era, the prerogative for elected officials to attend public meetings remotely, remains an option in some places.

The recent annual meeting of the West Fargo Board of Equalization for property owners contesting their tax valuations, however, serves as a reminder of the limits of relying on technology to conduct government business post-Covid. Forum News notes that an internet glitch prevented the five-member board from reaching the quorum necessary to vote on the taxpayer appeals.

The West Fargo City Commission failed to form a quorum at its recent Board of Equalization meeting, underscoring a pitfall of allowing commissioners to attend meetings remotely.

The five commissioners serve as the city’s Board of Equalization, which holds an annual meeting to give residents a chance to raise concerns or questions about their homes’ assessed values — values that affect how much they pay in property taxes.

The commissioner running the meeting, Brad Olson, was apologetic over the prospect of residents taking the time to make their case without the opportunity of getting feedback.

“The third commissioner is in an area where he cannot get cell service and the other two commissioners are unavailable to even connect by phone,” Olson told residents. “So the two of us cannot approve anything. But we’ll hear your appeals, if you’re here to present them.”

All three absentee commissioners had notified the board well in advance they would not be available to attend in person. But nothing the staff did could rectify the connectivity issues.

Commissioner Mark Simmons tried to attend via Zoom, then called by phone into the meeting, working with the city technology and communications staff to connect but was unable. Simmons could be heard in the room but he could not hear those speaking.

“It was unfortunate,” Mayor Bernie Dardis said, noting that he was out of town on April 11, an absence he had planned ahead of time.

Ironically, Commissioner Olson had recently pushed for an end to remote attendance at the equalization board’s meetings to no avail.

In March, Olson suggested the commission consider prohibiting Zoom meetings but his suggestion was shot down by a 4-1 vote. Last week, Olson said the lack of a physical quorum at the Board of Equalization meeting did not ignite a desire to reconsider remote attendance and he said his initial call for remote attendance consideration was a different matter.

In the end, residents in the audience made their case with the understanding they would not have to attend the next meeting and do it over again.

About four property owners spoke at the Board of Equalization meeting. Mayor Dardis said the city received about 33 comments or concerns regarding assessments, and those have been addressed by city staff.

Those who did speak at the Board of Equalization meeting were directed to work with staff in the assessor’s office, which can then reconsider the valuation based on discussions with property owners, which is common practice at equalization meetings.

While admittedly embarrassing, the incident seems unlikely to persuade commission members to reconsider remote access any time soon.

“This has never happened [failure to reach a quorum] in my ten years, so we do apologize,” said city assessor Nick Lee at the conclusion of the session.