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McFeely: Foes wonder if there's more to Gehrig than only sound and fury

Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig, left, listens to Commissioner Dave Piepkorn speak about Gehrig's plan to cut the city's property taxes by 20 percent during a Cit Commission meeting in July 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum

Tony Gehrig was elected to the Fargo City Commission in April 2015. It took him until May 2018, one day before absentee voting began and a little more than a month before election day, to introduce a plan to eliminate special assessments in the city.

And when he did make public his controversial proposal, Gehrig didn't make a motion at a commission meeting. He lobbed a grenade in the media and made the rounds of radio and TV talk shows, saying he was revealing "dirty secrets." Gehrig has called into question the integrity of city government and sowed public distrust in city officials, including the mayor. "Transparency" is Gehrig's go-to word.

An aside: As of the morning of Friday, May 25, the transparency candidate still had not turned in his campaign finance disclosure forms. These are the forms that allow the public to know who is contributing money to candidates. They were due two weeks ago. When asked Friday why he had not turned them in yet, Gehrig said: "I'll have that disclosure in today. I'm glad you told me. Must have gotten lost in the shuffle."

The transparency candidate was also not happy when some residents alerted city auditor Steve Sprague that some of Gehrig's yard signs might be in violation of campaign rules because they didn't disclose who paid for them. "Yeah literal Commies have been harassing me lately," Gehrig responded via email to Sprague, according to documents obtained through an open-records request.

So citizens who question whether a politician is abiding by the rules are Communists guilty of harassment, apparently. Transparency for thee, but not for me.

Anyway, more than three weeks after Gehrig dropped his idea about eliminating specials, he still hasn't officially introduced a plan to change Fargo's assessment formula, even as Mayor Tim Mahoney and commissioner Tony Grindberg worked to lower special assessments by passing a motion at the Monday, May 21, commission meeting. It took only a few days and one vote to accomplish that, with the promise from the mayor that the commission would form a task force in July to take a comprehensive look at specials.

Gehrig's sound and fury—"I don't play on a team here!" he barked recently at another commissioner who urged teamwork to get things done—has irked Mahoney, other commissioners and Gehrig's opponents in the race for his contested seat in the June 12 election. The libertarian commissioner who relishes being a consistent "no" vote on proposals that pass 4-1 seems to be a lot of talk, some of it deemed misinformation by fellow commissioners, and little action.

It begs the question: Is Gehrig using special assessments as a handy campaign issue, or is he actually interested in governing?

Given the timing of Gehrig making his proposal public and his lack of actually making a formal motion before the commission, at least a couple of his challengers think they know the answer.

Linda Boyd, a former commissioner seeking one of the two contested spot (Dave Piepkorn is also defending his seat) wrote an op-ed piece for The Forum that said, "His plan simply doesn't pencil out, and all his name-calling and insult-throwing won't make it any better. Fargo deserves good governance, not gimmicks."

Tim Flakoll, a former state legislator seeking a commission seat, went a step further on my 970 WDAY radio show Friday, May 25. He called for Gehrig to bring his no-specials proposal before the commission. Its next meeting is June 4.

"I'm disappointed he hasn't run anything out before the City Commission," Flakoll said. "Get this new Gehrig tax on the agenda. ... It makes you wonder why not. Is the plan not ready to showcase? If not, why not? Roll it out there and have some discussion at the City Commission level, not just at the social media level.

"If you have the courage of your convictions, put it out there for discussion before the commission for the people who actually vote on it," Flakoll continued.

Flakoll said Gehrig's proposal amounts to a new tax because it would raise utility rates, something city attorney Erik Johnson has said might need to be voted on by Fargo residents. Flakoll said he looks at the commission returning from a 50/50 split to a 70/30 split on special assessment burdens (70 percent picked up by city, 30 percent by residents) as proof elected officials can make a difference quickly.

"They got it put on the agenda a few days after it was announced and it passed a few days after that. So clearly, if you have your ducks in a row—and I talked to the mayor and others about it—you can build consensus," Flakoll said. "It's about getting something passed. It's not about saying, 'I take pride in losing every vote 4-1.' That's not what's important. It's important to come up with ideas, but also getting those ideas passed."

Gehrig dismisses the criticism.

"In 2015, my first year in office, I said specials should end," he said. "This is not a 'campaign issue.' This is a Fargo issue. Instituting major change takes a solid plan, public support and commission buy-in. If any of those things aren't present, then it won't work."

Gehrig seems to miss the irony of admitting he's wanted to end specials for three years, yet kept the grenade in his pocket until a month before the election. But that's his story and he's sticking to it.

"Locally, commissioners need to have public support first from the people. If the other commissioners don't feel that people care about the issue, or if they don't feel pressure to change the system, then it won't change," Gehrig said. "This is the same process I used for (tax) incentives. The incentive policy didn't change just because I brought it up at a meeting. ... I am using the same model."

As for commission buy-in, Gehrig won't have the votes to end specials even if he's re-elected. Only one of his commissioner colleagues, John Strand, would even consider seconding such a motion—and that would only be out of courtesy to forward the discussion. Remember Gehrig relishes not being part of a team, which makes it hard to build support.

Being the "1" in 4-1 votes makes for good campaign sound bites. Being the fly in the ointment, on everything, is a safe place to be. There are few repercussions for never actually proposing something at a commission meeting. There is a good chance Gehrig will be re-elected.

But as a matter of actually accomplishing public policy, it isn't very effective. So it is with Gehrig's no-specials campaign.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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