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Grand Forks' Fufeng lawsuits draw judges from Ramsey County

The use of judges from a neighboring judicial district helps highlight the extraordinary profile of the cases.

Grand Forks City Hall
Grand Forks City Hall
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GRAND FORKS — Both Fufeng Group lawsuits facing Grand Forks — aimed at forcing a citywide vote on the Chinese agribusiness’ planned corn mill — will have judges from Ramsey County after a number of local judges have recused themselves or been disqualified.

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Judges Lonnie Olson and Donovan Foughty are expected to preside over separate cases from Grand Forks District Court regarding a court order and an administrative appeal, respectively. Typical chambers for both judges are in Ramsey County.

The use of judges from a neighboring judicial district helps highlight the extraordinary profile of the cases. Both are tied tightly to the city’s now eight-month public pursuit of Fufeng Group, the China-based business that plans to build a corn mill on the city’s northern border. City Hall sees it as an economic boon for the city; opponents have fretted about the project’s ties to China, its effects on area traffic, and environmental and odor worries.

Some skeptics of the project called for a citywide vote on the project’s future earlier this year, gathering signatures to force a referendum on a development agreement (and a few related items) with Fufeng Group — the legal framework that’s carrying the city through its deal with the company. While nixing that deal probably wouldn’t prohibit construction, it would likely hamstring the city’s negotiations and send a loud political message.

Those skeptics gathered nearly 5,000 valid signatures as they sought a referendum, which the city rejected in early April. City Auditor Maureen Storstad cited a range of technical issues with the petitions, including that the signature packets weren’t clear enough about the issues or labeled properly.

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Importantly, City Hall also held that the issue is an “administrative matter,” and that it “may not be referred to the electors of the city.”

The cases date from early May, when the “People for the Vote” group seeking the referendum and one of its leaders, Ben Grzadzielewski, launched two cases: an administrative appeal of the decision, and a separate case asking for a court order to reverse the city’s decision.

“Petitioners seek to exercise a fundamental right held sacred in this state: the right of the people to vote on the government actions that significantly impact their lives,” the legal team for the challengers writes in a memo seeking the court order. “The city auditor for the city of Grand Forks impermissibly robbed the petitioners of this critical right by unlawfully rejecting their referendum petition.”

Grzadzielewski and the People for the Vote group are represented by Grand Forks attorney David C. Thompson and two Minneapolis-based attorneys.

Since then, the city’s legal team has responded in its own filings in the court order case, running through a list of arguments. The matter can’t be referred, city lawyers hold, calling the submitted petition “wholly unworkable,” calling for either an “impermissible vote on multiple issues or (containing) impermissible extraneous material.” The petition itself, they wrote, is “plainly insufficient,” echoing earlier City Hall concerns about the signature documents themselves.

“While the petitioners’ request for a (court order) must fail for any of these reasons, it clearly fails for all of them,” the city’s legal team wrote.

City Attorney Dan Gaustad was instrumental in the creation of the development agreement at the center of the case. The city is currently being represented by a team from a Bismarck law firm.

The cases could soon be merged, a request brought by the petition-backers’ legal team. The city has “no objection” to that, its lawyers have written, though they’ve also argued that the two-track approach — seeking an appeal and a court order — might have problems.

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“The city must note that petitioners cannot bring both of these claims concurrently,” the city argued.

Related Topics: FUFENG
Sam Easter is a Michigan-based 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 returned to Michigan and began his freelancing career.

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