Doug Christensen's exit interview

Q. Why did you decide to run for the City Council in 2000? After the flood of 1997, a lot of things were going on, and there were a lot of unhappy people. One night I was working, and I looked up, and there were Jerry Lucke and Bob Brooks; they w...

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Grand Forks City Council member Doug Christensen, talks with the Herald editorial board. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Q. Why did you decide to run for the City Council in 2000?

After the flood of 1997, a lot of things were going on, and there were a lot of unhappy people. One night I was working, and I looked up, and there were Jerry Lucke and Bob Brooks; they were both on the council at the time.

They sat down and said, "We need some help." They had a 14-person council, and they said, "This isn't working. It's too cumbersome."

I said, well, let's work on that.

As with anything, you've got to convince people there's a need to get a result. So the Chamber got involved, and with help from others, we convinced then-Mayor Pat Owens that we probably should get on with trying to help restructure how we govern our city.


So, we put together a committee; Hal Gershman was involved by now, too. The committee studied whether we should have a change in our council structure.

To make a long story short, the change went through. So the conversation began, well, now that we got that done, what should we do? So, Hal and I said, I guess we better run for office.

So, we ran for office and got elected, and Curt Kreun got elected, too. And we thought, holy cow, now what do we do?

So that was the beginning of this sojourn.

Q. What were some of your initial challenges?

At first, it was having the staff get to know us and us get to know them. And getting to know the process: What is city government? What does governing involve?

We learned that. Because of my background, and also because I have a pretty good affinity for finance, I began to really learn the budgeting process. I learned how we budget; I learned municipal accounting.

So, I kind of became the person who was designated to be the finance guy. We kind of designated Kreun to be the guy who's in charge of the streets and sewers. And that left Hal; well, neither Curt nor I wanted to be president of the council, so Hal became president, and he stayed there for all the years that he was there.


Obviously, Hal is Hal, and he always did a good job. He's just a natural leader.

The three of us, we were termed somewhere along the first two or four years the "mini mayors," and Mike Brown was the mayor. I could just tick off for you the projects that came and were resolved, and we moved on.

Q. What's an accomplishment you're especially proud of?

Actually, one of the things that I think is the most telling is how others want to be on the council. I think we've been successful at showing how to govern, and I think the people who'd like to be on the council believe that, too.

For example, if you look in the Fifth Ward-my ward-there are three people running for the office. I believe there are three people running to represent Terry Bjerke's ward, too.

And when I look at the people who were elected this last go-round-you've got Ken Vein and Bret Weber, Jeannie Mock and Crystal Schneider-they're good council persons. So, I think you've got a good council

Q. You're saying there seems to be an underlying faith in the quality of local governance.

Well, it all depends on if you listen to talk radio in the morning, or which kaffeeklatsch you're going to. But I think on the whole, most citizens feel that the way the city of Grand Forks is being governed and managed-I think they're rather comfortable with it. I don't get an awful lot of telephone calls complaining about many things.


Q. Terry Bjerke suggests that things are different-that people are overtaxed and unhappy because there's too much government and so on. What do you think about his critique?

You always can count on your own vote on an issue. But a key principle in governing is to try to achieve consensus. And consensus means you have to embrace the ideas of others to some extent-although they may conflict a bit with your view of the situation-to come to a conclusion.

So, what that means is you have to reach across the aisle. You have to talk to your fellow council persons.

That would be a good question for any of the council or mayor candidates: If you get elected, how are you going to develop consensus?

As Earl Strinden said one time, "When you're leading, always look back to make sure your followers are behind you." Because sometimes when you look, there's nobody there.

Q. Give us some examples of building consensus in local governing.

It's like, when the idea of a rule barring smoking in bars and restaurants came up, I went to Hal and I said, "I'm going for that one." He said, "what do you mean?" I said, "that's a no brainer: I don't like smoking. I don't like smoking in bars; I don't like smoking in restaurants. And nobody else does, either."

I got ahold of Eliot Glassheim and said, "Let's do this." So, we went for it and, of course, we had the bar owners showing up, and the restaurant owners showing up, saying that the roof was going to fall down if we passed this, and so on.


But we got the votes, and we passed it. We were the first city in North Dakota to do so-and then it got legs. It happened in Bismarck and then Fargo, and then the state adopted it, too.

Downtown housing is another example. After the flood, we didn't have anything going on in downtown. So we formed a committee, and we got a finding that the downtown needed housing to get a critical mass of people on the sidewalks and in the shops.

So, now we knew that we had to get housing going, but we had to find somebody to build it. Well, nobody wanted to take that kind of a chance on downtown.

So we agreed to finance the developer. We said, we'll lend you a million bucks.

And the result is, we got the townhomes. And once we got that, the next one up-the Current, I think they call it-that got built because those developers could see that the first one was working. And then other projects followed. Once you get it rolling, then it starts working.

Q. Critics would say that's an activist government picking winners and losers.

I don't think government picks winners and losers. Instead, people come to the government and present the government with ideas. Then the government decides if the public will benefit from the idea-in other words, if the public will win.

That's when they decide if they're going to further the project, and if so, how. And there's always a trade-off: The government says, "If we're going to do this, this is what we require of you."


That's the issue: there are trade-offs when the private begins to deal with the public. The government agrees on what it's willing to give or to forego to advance the private; but the government does that only because the public will benefit. The public will have something that it didn't have before.

If you're talking about a domed stadium or a football field or soccer field, it's the same thing.

Your leaders have to understand that they have the power to do something, but they shouldn't do it just because they can. Instead, they should do it because there's a benefit to be achieved for both parties involved.

And the benefit tends to be longer lasting for the public than it is for the private.

Q. What's your advice for the council members who'll be elected in June?

I think the newly elected council members should spend substantial time trying to learn the budgeting process and getting an idea of where the funds come from. We have certain sources of revenue, and some of them are allocated for certain things and other sources aren't.

So, for example, the new members should learn what an Enterprise Fund is and how the funds generated by the Enterprise Fund can be used.

Q. What can be done about the housing issue in Grand Forks? Is there any hope of expanding single-family housing in Grand Forks in the next few years?


My quick answer is no, at least when it comes to so-called "affordable" housing.

Remember, you may want to expand single-family housing, but there are embedded costs in all of those lots that all of those people are developing. And if I'm a developer, I'm not in the business of selling the house that I'm building for something less than what I can get for it.

Q. In other words, if I can build and sell houses for $300,000, why would I build houses for $150,000?

Exactly. Now, if you want to get really adventurous in housing, then you could start thinking about the city actually getting involved in the housing business.

But think about the uproar that you'd have in that case, because first, you'd have to buy land. Then you'd be in competition with the people who already are buying land for development. Would that generate a lawsuit?

Plus, developing housing probably is not in the city's wheelhouse.

Now, one thing that the city probably could do is to find land someplace and encourage an entity like the Community Land Trust to develop 10 or 15 or 30 lots. Because the Community Land Trust, that's a nonprofit in which the trust owns the land, while the resident owns the house. When the resident moves, he or she gets a part of the house's increase in value; but the rest of the money goes back to the trust, and that gives them the money to do another one.

So that would be one way that the city could get involved in affordable housing at a bigger level.

Q. What are some of the biggest issues that will face the city in the next year or two?

The biggest issue is how are they going to fund and pay for the water treatment plant. The question really is, if you're going to have a sales tax, how and when are you going to deploy it, and when do you make the ask?

It's going to be a vote of the people. It has to be.

Then there's the library, which is being advanced. That has to go to a vote of the people, too.

Q. Is a library going to get built?

If the citizens vote for it.

Q. Do you think they will?

It's going to be iffy.

Q. Does the city want to combine the sales-tax increases for the library and water plant? Would you be in favor of putting the library in there?

It gets complicated, because that sales tax can pay for the library if the entire sales tax is dedicated to the project.

So, a 1 percent sales tax generates about $11 million a year. That means the sales tax increase could come and go and pay for your library in 2½ years.

But the talk is of a ¾ percent increase, and the question is, what are they going to do with it?

My advice would be to first, advance a proposal to increase the sales tax for the library, and be done with it. It would succeed with voters, or it would fail.

Then once that's settled, you'd go back to the issue of your water treatment plant.

Besides a sales tax, revenue sources could include gradual increases in water rates to amortize the cost of the water treatment plant, which is something we have to do anyway. Then we might not need a sales-tax increase to pay for the plant.

Or, I'd "skinny back" on the plans for the plant, and be prepared to add on to it if and when we start getting water from Devils Lake.

Finally, in the event that we get a fertilizer plant, I would create another entity in which we'd buy water from ourselves and sell it to the fertilizer plant, so we can make some money for the city. That would be another source of revenue that we'd need to cover our payments for the water plant.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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