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Efforts underway to void Grand Forks Arbor Park election

Arbor Park. Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald file photo.

Just three weeks after the citywide referendum on Grand Forks’ Arbor Park, there’s an effort underway to undo the results.

Documents drafted by local attorney Henry Howe and provided to the city this week list two dozen “qualified voters” as plaintiffs in a case aimed at voiding the June 20 election. In those documents, Howe argues the city exceeded its power by providing only one location for voting, the Alerus Center, which he calls arbitrary, reckless and counter to the city’s more often-used system of voting precincts throughout the city.

Howe also argues the city’s Board of Canvassers incorrectly disqualified two absentee ballots when it certified election results, raising concerns over “systemic errors” in the electoral process. If election officials cannot be counted on to follow the law, he wrote, “then a democracy based on citizen voting is at great, grave risk. As Juvenal wrote, almost 2,000 years ago, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’”

The Latin phrase literally means “Who will guard the guards themselves?”

“My take is an election should be done by the book,” Howe said in a Wednesday interview. “And if it’s not done by the book, it’s not done right.”

Multiple city leaders deferred a legal response to City Attorney Howard Swanson, who was unable to be reached for comment Wednesday.

The referendum on Arbor Park decided the future of the 15 S. 4th St. property after it was targeted for sale by the city to a developer last year. Though a group of petitioners gathered signatures attempting to preserve the park with the Park District, their proposal was rejected 2,451-2,271 last month in an effective approval of a construction project on the site.

The legal documents drafted by Howe imply pending legal action in Grand Forks District Court, though online court records do not indicate clerks have them on file yet.

Howe says he filed the documents on Monday, and said a deadline now looms for a city response in the next two weeks.

Plaintiffs listed in the documents include multiple leaders of the push to preserve the park, including Mary Weaver and C.T. Marhula. Both declined to comment.

“The document speaks for itself,” Marhula said.

Developers were expected to begin construction on the site before the end of the year, though the new legal entanglement raises questions for such a timeline.

City Administrator Todd Feland said he is unsure what parts of the development the new challenge will pause, but said the city still expects construction to begin before the end of the year. Meredith Richards, a senior city community development official, said there has been no immediate delay in the art removal process. Though it was expected as soon as this month, a firm date for it had not yet been set.

“Here’s one more hurdle that we have in front of us, but we continue to plan and expect that we’ll move it forward,” Feland said. “As things come up...we’ll have to adapt, but right now we’re shooting for construction to start this fall.”

Richards added that the purchase and development agreements for the land have been signed, but said the sale has not yet been concluded owing to standard delays in the land purchasing process.

Howe was in the spotlight last year, during a lawsuit filed against the Health Department and one of its employees, protesting an order to mow the weeds outside his downtown office property at 421 DeMers Ave. Howe had railed against the city’s grass code at the time, calling its requirements unconstitutionally imprecise. His grass was ultimately mowed -- and he was forced to pay the cost -- and though a judge left him an opportunity to re-file his case, he has not done so.

Much of the document Howe served the city with this week lionizes Arbor Park, tracing its origins from the Flood of 1997 to its construction on devastated downtown land to the present. It quotes proponents at length, which alternately describe the park as an urban oasis and a “sculpture in its own right.”  

“For the last few years the Mayor and a majority of City Council members began to listen to the siren call of developers who whispered the ‘magic words’ so dear to the hearts of city planners -- ‘money, money money’ -- that would supposedly pour into the city coffers from ‘development,’” Howe wrote.

City Council President Dana Sande gave Howe’s remarks short shrift, calling much of the document “garbage.”

“Using hyperbole and innuendo to say that all the City Council is looking for is the money being dangled by developers -- I don’t know who they’re trying to affect,” Sande said. But whether it’s an attempt to catch a judge’s eye or grab headlines, it “doesn’t really bother me.”

City Council member Bret Weber was more conciliatory, but just as firm.

“I continue to be heartened by people's’ passion for all things downtown, but beyond that, I think it was a fair election and we’re just waiting for a response from the city attorney,” Weber said.

Click here to view a PDF of the summons filed by Howe