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Opponents skeptical as Grand Forks Police Department joins review of petition against Fufeng factory

City leaders say it’s part of a basic review to ensure the petition itself is properly vetted. But it’s planted suspicion among petitioners, who bristle at the possibility of police involvement in an elections-related matter.

Fufeng petition sign.jpg
Cars zip past a sign that points toward a petition-signing site on North Washington Street, just south of the intersection of Washington and DeMers Ave., on Thursday, March 17, 2022.
Korrie Wenzel / Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – A Grand Forks Police Department detective is helping review a petition that recently was filed at City Hall in hopes of forcing a citywide vote on a major new corn-milling plant.

City leaders say it’s part of a basic review to ensure the petition itself is properly vetted. But it has planted suspicion among petitioners, who bristle at the possibility of police involvement in an elections-related matter.

“Very disappointed with the city’s approach to silence the will of the people. Rest assured, we will not back down easily, or at all,” Senta Grzadzielewski, a petition supporter, posted on the Facebook page where much of the signature-collecting was organized. “The people deserve their voice to be heard.”

Top city leaders argue there’s nothing inappropriate about the department’s involvement, which is meant to provide another layer of vetting. City Council President Dana Sande even posted a response below Grzadzielewski’s comment on Thursday afternoon.

RELATED: Fufeng petition collects more than 5,300 signatures

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“Like with every referendum, to make sure it is legal, the city must validate the petitions,” Sande wrote. “This is done (apparently) in multiple ways, including interviewing those who collected signatures, to make sure it is legal so it can go to the vote. … This isn't meant to stop it, it's meant to make sure it can move forward.”

More on Fufeng
Meanwhile, we must be cognizant of what it all could mean for friendly nations wishing to invest here. Or for existing businesses that have roots in our communities. For example, the Cirrus plant.

The police detective’s involvement comes as the city seeks to vet the petition process within a key 20-day review window that began when signatures were filed last week. During that time, city staff are expected to weed out ineligible signatures – people who aren’t residents of Grand Forks, for instance.

If the number of signatures reaches the legal threshold of 3,617 — and the petition itself is judged to have legal merit — then the petition is expected to force a vote on the future of a development agreement with a subsidiary of Fufeng Group, which is planning a new agribusiness plant on the city’s northern edge.

Andrew Stein, a spokesman for the Grand Forks Police Department, said in an email the department has “no vested interest either way.”

“(We) were only asked to assist in calling a random sampling of those individuals that signed the petition,” Stein told the Grand Forks Herald in an email. “We were provided with a set list of questions and sampling of people to ask.”

City Attorney Dan Gaustad said it was his decision to refer a portion of the vetting to the Grand Forks Police Department. He said that while city staff will be focused on verifying individual signatures, the police detective will ask questions about the way in which those signatures were gathered.

He also acknowledged petitioners’ suspicions about police involvement — that it might have an unnecessarily intimidating effect on petitioners.

“We discussed that very thing and that's not the intention,” Gaustad said. “This is not a criminal investigation at all. It is to assist my office and city auditor's office in evaluating the sufficiency of what was submitted.”

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There are two sets of questions — one for people who signed the petition, and others for those who circulated it. Those were provided to the GFPD, which will reach out to randomly selected people who signed or circulated the petition.

The GFPD also released those lists of questions to the Herald. They ask about names, addresses, and if the person lived at that address for at least 30 days before signing the petition. They ask signers detailed questions about which documents they were shown when signing the petition — such as the development agreement and others that could be referred to city voters for review.

Notably, they also ask of signatories: “When obtaining your signature, did you feel pressured to sign?”

Gaustad said there is no penalty for a person who does not respond.

The plant project is a darling of city leaders, who see it as an economic boost for the region, bringing 200 direct jobs and indirectly creating potentially hundreds more. But plant opponents have questioned Fufeng Group’s ties to China, where it is headquartered, as well as the plant’s impact on local water supply, traffic and the environment.

The use of police scrutiny appears to be a departure from how the city reviewed petitions submitted in late 2016 to force a similar vote on the future of Arbor Park, a beloved “pocket park” space along downtown Fourth Street. Though petitions were closely reviewed by city staff, no police involvement was reported, and City Administrator Todd Feland said this week that he did not recall if there was any.

Feland said the referral processes that lead to such citywide votes are unusual, though, with little precedent — and the one now unfolding is under a different city attorney than the city relied upon during 2016.

Gaustad said he couldn’t speak to decisions made in 2016, but said the police department’s involvement made intuitive sense for fact-finding purposes. He said the Bureau of Criminal Investigation had been recently involved in a review of a statewide petition.

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He added that he hopes to see the city render a decision on the petition’s future as soon as April 11.

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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