Demands for a vote on proposed Fufeng plant are reaching critical mass. What will Grand Forks do?
Proponents note their signature volume rivals the number of votes that put Mayor Brandon Bochenski in office in 2020.
GRAND FORKS — In only a few months, a group of worried voices opposing a proposed Grand Forks corn-milling plant has ballooned into a political movement big enough to demand a citywide vote on its future.
A total 4,797 signatures were deemed valid by the city this month on a petition demanding a vote on a development deal with Fufeng Group, the China-based agribusiness behind the facility. Though the city has deemed the petition invalid — it has done so for legal and technical reasons — those nearly 5,000 signatures are far beyond the legal threshold to force a referendum.
And, as proponents are quick to point out, their signature volume rivals the number of votes that put Mayor Brandon Bochenski in office in 2020. He won with nearly 5,700 votes.
“These numbers aren’t indicative of a small group of people, but rather a large portion of the city’s voting population,” Ben Grzadzielewski, a leader within the petitioners’ movement, wrote in a recent letter to the Herald. “It’s important to note this is not an issue of the people vs. the project. This is an issue of checks and balances. Grand Forks residents have indicated their perception of city government overreach and are trying to find the balance.”
Bochenski said the city has received the message that citizens want the project closely examined, saying leaders are “doing everything possible to protect the city from their concerns.” But he also said it’s unclear that all 5,000 signatories want the same thing.
“Is it 5,000 people that are saying that we want to vote on it?” he wondered. “Is it 5,000 that are saying that we don't want this individual company to come? Is it 5,000 that are saying we've got environmental concerns? Is it the foreign investment?”
On Monday, April 11, City Council leaders discussed the petition’s future. At a committee meeting, City Council member Jeannie Mock said there’s been significant interest in the petition’s future, and that onlookers were likely expecting a discussion. But council leaders opted against a motion to add it to the meeting’s agenda, with members Dana Sande, Kyle Kvamme and Danny Weigel opposed.
Dan Gaustad, the city attorney, had advised city leaders that the petition is in its seven-day correction period, following a rejection by City Auditor Maureen Storstad on Friday, April 8, which gives time for petitioners to correct the petitions to meet the city’s standards. Commenting on it publicly during that time, he said, could lead to more complicated legal wrangling.
But it’s unclear what petitioners can do to meet those standards; one argument from the city attorney is that the items up for referral are “administrative,” and thus can’t be sent to a citywide vote at all.
On Wednesday, Ben Grzadzielewski told the Herald via text message that he didn’t have any updates on the petition group’s future.
“(We’re) still working through and trying to figure some things out,” he said.
Local civic leaders have also expressed frustration at what they say is misinformation stacking up in the campaign to put Fufeng Group on the ballot. Keith Lund, who heads the local Economic Development Corporation — a key group that helped lure Fufeng’s interest — offered a point-by-point rebuttal of a recent mailer circulated widely in Grand Forks that claimed the plant will increase taxes by $100 million and force local residents to cover Fufeng Group’s property taxes.
But despite the concerns about misinformation — and the legal wrangling around the petition — the problem remains for city leaders that Grand Forks is now pressing ahead on a project that numerous residents say should head to a vote. What will they do about it?
Sande, the City Council president, notably told Fufeng opponents earlier this year that he believes the new facility has the city’s support. He stood by that this past week.
“I recently gathered all my (council election) petitions. And I have lots of conversations with people about Fufeng, and about the corn-milling plant,” he said, speaking against “misinformation,” like suggestions that the city could run out of water or that its connections to China pose a threat. “Over and over again, when I got done with my conversations with people, they told me two things: That they're supportive of the plant because they believe it's going to be good for our community, and that we should do a better job communicating the truth to the citizens of Grand Forks.”
Mock said that she’s open to hearing more from residents on the desire for an election.
“I always hate to say that I’m dead set one way or the other … but I’m definitely interested in the conversation,” she said. She noted, though, that the future is still unclear. “I don’t know that there are the votes on the council to move it to a public vote.”