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North Dakota Supreme Court rules against Arbor Park challenge

The North Dakota Supreme Court has put Grand Forks’ Arbor Park case to rest, ruling Monday the case is moot since the city already sold the park to developers nearly a year ago.

While the case was sparked by a referendum last summer on commercial development of the park, plaintiff C.T. Marhula focused on voter access and how the city conducted the special election.

According to Marhula, the city operated illegally by holding a single-site referendum at the Alerus Center since he said the city code didn’t specify the city could consolidate voting precincts.

Marhula was a part of a larger group that sued the city in November and lost the case in district court. The city’s attorney argued the city had the authority to combine precincts when the poll workers and locations aren’t available, and the district court agreed.

Marhula appealed to the Supreme Court alone after all the other plaintiffs withdrew from the case earlier this year, and he represented himself.

The city argued to the Supreme Court to dismiss the appeal as moot because the sale of the property to developers had been completed and no one had attempted to stop the sale while the case moved ahead.

The Supreme Court’s ruling agreed the case was moot and upheld the district court’s dismissal.

“Marhula does not claim bad faith or fraudulent conduct, and he has not cited any constitutional provisions requiring the election to be declared invalid,” justices wrote in their decision.

The justices also wrote that Marhula had time to raise claims before the election that a single voting place violated city ordinances.

“State law allows a home-rule charter city to control their voting. So the city can legally have single site voting,” Marhula said Monday. “My whole point has been their existing code has not allowed that. And the Supreme Court did not say their code allows it. That was not their decision.”

While both Marhula and the city were waiting for a decision, City Attorney Howard Swanson introduced an amendment to city code that declared the city has authority to consolidate voting precincts for municipal elections as needed. Last Monday, the City Council voted in favor of the amendment after a debate on whether or not it’s too soon to approve.

To pass, the amendment needs to go before the council again. Because of the municipal election Tuesday, the council can’t vote until July 2, giving the public two opportunities to present an opinion during council meetings.

After receiving his Supreme Court decision Monday, Marhula said he will take advantage of these next two meetings to bring up his concerns about voting access.

“I hope (developer Kevin) Ritterman and his investors and partners make a great profit and build a great building and have incredible financial success,” he said. “With me, this was about voting, and I care little about the development.”

Emily Allen

Allen joined the Grand Forks Herald to cover local government and politics May 2018. Call her at 701-780-1102, email her at eallen@gfherald.com or follow her on Twitter, @Emily_theHerald.

(701) 780-1102
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