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Grand Forks city grants cause tension

In the past decade, two programs created by the city of Grand Forks have been making recommendations on how to spend millions of dollars in art and special events money.

City meeting minutes going back at least 10 years show suggestions from the Art Re-Grant and Special Events programs were rarely a source of controversy.

The same can't be said for this year.

Pushback from local organizations and concerns about the committees' procedures threw the programs into the spotlight and under the microscope of City Council.

"We had to tighten things up a bit," said Council President Hal Gershman.

The tightening has earned the council some rancor from residents unhappy with its choices. The pushback has council members reminding residents that not every city has these programs.

"We're very fortunate to have government that supports arts and special events at the level we do," Gershman said.

Since 2001 the Arts Re-Grant Program and Special Events programs have awarded $1.3 million and $1.4 million respectively to local organizations for events and programs.

Public input

Money for both programs comes from sales tax and each has a committee that evaluates applications and requests.

Greg Hoover, director of the city's urban development department, said both committees are part of a national trend started in the mid-1970s to encourage residents to become more involved in local government.

In theory, using these committees in Grand Forks allows residents to participate in government and take pressure off the council by making recommendations it can adjust.

"You want public input and this is a great way to do it," said Meredith Richards, the department's community development manager.

The Art Re-Grant and Special Events committees are composed of council representatives and residents with specialties in the program's topic.

For the arts, that means people familiar with art but unaffiliated with local art organizations review funding requests. Completing a similar task on the Special Events Committee are staff from events venues, tourism organizations and other groups.

Funding frustration

Both programs became sources of contention this year between the council and residents.

The Art Re-Grant Program allocated money to 16 organizations this year, five of which were groups without an arts-based mission -- a requirement for receiving the money.

Total, the five organizations -- a nursing home, a mental health recovery center, support programs for the disabled and a historical preservation group -- received $12,550 of the available $116,331.

Financial documents provided by the North Valley Arts Council, which administers money on the city's behalf, show over the past 12 years that 11 non-art organizations received funds.

The amount those groups received over that time frame was about $59,000 or 4.5 percent of the total funding dispersed.

Complaints from art groups that did not receive funding this year led the City Council to question how closely the committee followed guidelines.

The council voted in October to uphold the guidelines as is instead of making room for non-arts organizations managing art events or programs. That move resulted in more criticism from residents who thought the money should be available to any art program or event.

"It's very frustrating for those of us who are trying to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money," Council member Dana Sande said.

Council involvement

Special Events recommendations also hit a few bumps at the council level in November.

This time the controversy stemmed from the involvement of one of their own.

Council member Tyrone Grandstrand was elected chairman of the program's committee. He also was one of the organizers for an event seeking money from the program, TEDx Grand Forks.

During discussion, Grandstrand said he stepped down from the chairman position and recused himself from voting. In the end, his involvement pushed the council to not provide funding for TEDx, as the committee recommended, while passing about $109,000 in requests for 33 other events.

"It doesn't look right even if everything is on the up and up," Sande said.

Gershman said the council will likely vote on adding a requirement that prohibits council members from serving on the committee if they are involved with an event seeking money from the program.

Grandstrand welcomes the rule as long as it is recorded in the council's ethics code.

"I think that's a really good idea," he said. "I would have immediately stepped off the committee or handed the reins of TEDx to someone else if we had this somewhere."

The potential limit on council members' involvement on the committee comes on the heels of another rule added recently by the city.

An event's funding eligibility was capped at five years in an effort wean some groups that have relied on the program's money for years.

Three of those events, Celebrate the Night, Art Fest and the Sertoma Club's Fourth of July event, have received more than $140,000 over the past 12 years. Altogether, they represent about 38 percent of the program's total allocations during that time frame.

Despite the negative reactions this year, the council members interviewed for this story say many good events have come out of the programs and that's something they hope to see continue.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1108 or send email to bjewett@gfherald.com.

Brandi Jewett

Brandi Jewett is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald with beats focusing on northwest Minnesota, unmanned aircraft systems and East Grand Forks city government. A native of Valley City, N.D., 26 years worth of winters haven't scared her out of the state yet. Follow her work at grandforksherald.com, on her blog at droningon.areavoices.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @brandijewett. Send tips and story ideas to bjewett@gfherald.com. 

(701) 780-1108
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