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Petitioners must stay out of Alerus Center during vote, attorney general says

People walk through Arbor Park in downtown Grand Forks before it was razed last year. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Alerus Center Building Mug2 / 2

Grand Forks city staff were right to ban people gathering petition signatures in the Alerus Center during an election, but the government cannot control where they are outside the building if they were at least 100 feet from the entrances, North Dakota's attorney general has ruled.

Those who are collecting signatures for a petition must be 100 feet from "any entrance leading into a polling place" when polls are open, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in an opinion released Tuesday.

The opinion was in response to a request from former state Rep. Eliot Glassheim, who asked for clarity on state law after city staff told a group it could not set up a table inside the Alerus Center, which is owned by the city, to collect signatures during early voting. The group also was told it had to set up in a designated "free speech" zone about 650 feet from the entrance of the Alerus Center, according to Glassheim's November 2016 letter to the Attorney General's Office.

North Dakota Century Code that keeps petitioners at least 100 feet from the venue's entrances is meant to "protect voters," Stenehjem said. However, the Alerus Center "may not prohibit gathering signatures except in the polling place or within 100 feet from any entrance leading to the polling place while open for voting," he wrote.

Glassheim's letter does not specifically say why the signature collectors wanted to set up a table in the Alerus Center, but the request for opinion came just before 4,600 signatures were submitted to City Council in an effort to prevent Arbor Park from being razed in downtown Grand Forks. In a June 20, 2017, special election, residents voted 2,451 to 2,269 to not preserve the park, making way for a $7.5 million, five-story condo and commercial building at the site.

C.T. Marhula, a Grand Forks resident who helped gather signatures for the effort, confirmed the opinion request was in reference to the Arbor Park petition, adding he asked Glassheim to submit it. Marhula was asked Nov. 4, 2016, to leave the Alerus Center when he attempted to gather signatures for the vote.

Marhula said he wouldn't dispute Stenehjem's ruling on being inside the building, though he said he feels legislation should allow petitioners to be inside the building.

However, he praised the part of the opinion that said staff could not control any group beyond 100 feet of the entrances.

"I think it is a huge victory," he said. "The city had threatened us with arrest if we did not move to their 'free speech' zone. ... We consider this a huge victory for the (U.S.) Constitution."

Glassheim did not immediately return a message left by the Herald.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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