West Fargo residents critical of city hall’s handling of sales tax on ballot

State law clearly prohibits government workers in North Dakota from involvement in political activity while on the job. Forum News published the relevant language in the statute as a reminder of the clear line in the sand for public employees.

North Dakota Century Code 44-08-19 states, “No public employee may engage in political activities while on duty or in uniform.” Section 39-01-04 broadly defines “political activities” to include distributing “political literature.”

But questions have been raised in West Fargo over whether city hall is pushing the envelope when it comes to a measure asking residents to vote to increase the local sales tax by a half-cent to support the fire and police departments at the polls next week. If approved, the tax would raise about $2.4 million in 2023.

Some West Fargoans are voicing concerns about how city officials have informed citizens about a half-cent sales tax measure and others are questioning if West Fargo taxpayers are being misled about the Nov. 8 ballot question.

West Fargoans are deciding whether to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund the city’s police and fire departments. City commissioners voted in September to add the measure to the ballot. Since then, the city has circulated information through its website, in the West Fargo Focus newspaper and via appearances by public employees.

…Since last week, several residents have sent emails to commissioners, The Forum and other officials questioning the city’s information and its distribution methods.

The controversy picked up after a recent public meeting in which the city’s police chief appeared in uniform to discuss the proposed tax hike, accompanied by several uniformed officers in the audience.

Some residents have said the information coming from public employees seems to reflect an encouragement to approve the measure.

Resident Tom Woollweever said city staff statements made at the recent meeting appeared to violate state law.

“It seems pretty clear to me that this is an attempt to advocate for a yes vote and, unless I am reading it incorrectly, that is a violation of the NDCC which prohibits any city staff employee from using their position to influence the vote,” Woollweever said in an email to city commissioners.

City officials maintain they have not crossed the line by encouraging support for the sales tax but rather presented information on the financial challenges that led to the ballot question. The city projects the police and fire department budgets combined will increase by more than $6 million in the next five years due to the need for more personnel and equipment.

West Fargo City Attorney John Shockley addressed the legality in a memo to The Forum, city commissioners and Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick. Shockley said the chiefs did not violate state law because they did not advocate a position on the measure and only provided facts about it.

“The city’s intent was not to advocate for or against or otherwise reflect a position, but rather to provide factual information regarding the budgetary constraints seen by the police department and fire department and the impact these budgets are having on the city’s general fund,” Shockley said in the memo.

Concerns have also been raised over a city flyer saying more school resource officers for elementary schools could be provided if the measure passes. School administrators say the cost of those officers comes out of the district’s budget, not city hall’s. And a former elected official pointedly criticized the city’s overall approach in publicizing the ballot question.

Eric Gjerdevig, a former city commissioner, said the city’s messaging has been misleading voters.

“It also says that the tax will ‘alleviate pressure on property taxes.’ That statement is designed to bias people towards voting for the measure,” Gjerdevig said. “First, city staff shouldn’t be trying to bias anyone. Secondly, it’s not true. The City Commission sets the budget and the property tax rate. There is zero guarantee that passing this tax will either increase or decrease your property tax.”

The controversy has landed on the desk of the Cass County State’s Attorney. But with days left until the November 8 election, it’s not clear whether there’s time or sufficient grounds of an election violation for action to be taken.