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Grand Forks City Hall official rejects petition calling for vote on proposed corn-milling factory

Petitioners have voiced concerns that the project could be bad for the environment, or consume too much water.

Grand Forks City Hall
Grand Forks City Hall

GRAND FORKS – City Auditor Maureen Storstad said in a memo Friday that she has rejected a petition aimed at forcing an election on the future of a proposed corn-milling factory on the city’s north side.

The decision is a major setback for petitioners, who had hoped to send a development deal with Fufeng Group — plus a smattering of related moves by the city to prepare for the project — to a citywide vote. If they had succeeded, they would have wrested control of the project’s future from City Hall, where momentum has grown behind a massive new plant that promises hundreds of jobs for the community.

But petitioners have voiced concerns that the project could be bad for the environment, or consume too much water. One of the loudest concerns they’ve had is the factory’s link to China, where Fufeng Group — its corporate parent — is headquartered.

Storstad’s memo, released to the Herald shortly before noon on Friday, echoes many of the arguments made earlier this week by City Attorney Dan Gaustad, who had provided his own analysis of the petitions for Storstad’s final review. That includes a range of technical problems with the petitions themselves — like the names of petition leaders not appearing in all the right places in petition packets, or concerns that the packets aren’t properly precise about the issues to be voted on by the public.

But perhaps the most significant argument, also made by Gaustad earlier this week, is the finding that the petitioners’ targets are an “administrative matter” — one that “may not be referred to the electors of the city.”

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Notably, Storstad’s review of the signatures on the petitions appeared to approve of enough signatures to force an election, had City Hall’s legal analysis of the petition gone differently.

The signature threshold for this type of petition is 3,617, or 15% of the Grand Forks votes cast in the most recent governor’s election. By Storstad’s analysis, petitioners handed over 5,311 signatures, and only disallowed several hundred for problems with residents’ illegible signatures, addresses outside Grand Forks, duplicate signatures and the like.

The final signature count, subtracting the disallowed signatures from 5,311, appears to be 4,797 names.

“It wasn’t due to the number of signatures,” Storstad confirmed in an interview on Friday. “It was based on the city attorney’s recommendation of his findings.”

Storstad’s memo allows seven days “for correction or amendment of the petition.” But the substantial issues she and Gaustad say are present in the petitions could make it a tall task to do so.

“I would say that the narrative has really changed. It’s gone from (about) the Fufeng project to ‘The people need to vote,’” said Ben Grzadzieleski, who is a member of the petitioners’ organizing committee. He said he was unsure of next steps during the city’s seven-day period for corrections and amendments.

“We have not talked about that yet,” he said.

Grzadzielewski declined to speculate about the possibility of a legal challenge.

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“I can’t honestly say,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone.”

Related Topics: FUFENG
Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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