The Grand Forks City Council has a well-earned reputation for manipulating voters. Sadly they are living up to that reputation once again. Time after time the City has engineered its elections to obtain the result it desired. In the case of the Alerus events center there were numerous votes, all a resounding "NO". These each required another vote. That is, until the vote that said "YES" by a reduced electorate following the disastrous flood of 1997. This time it is the legacy of that flood that is the object of contention: Arbor Park. For those who are not familiar with it, this is a small "pocket park" in the heart of downtown Grand Forks. It is a lovely and iconic symbol of renaissance of the city after the catastrophe. It was a true labor of love for many who lent their time, talents and resources. The City itself paid a substantial sum for the bronze tree arbor that gave the park its name. Since its inception it has been the venue for weddings, special events and just a quiet, tree-shaded spot for lunch or conversation or a cup of coffee.
Somehow, someone got the idea out of thin air that this park had been intended as only "temporary", a "place-holder", despite the commitment made to it from Day One. The next step, it seemed to the movers and shakers at City Hall to go into the real estate business and find a buyer for it who would demolish the little work of art and put an improbable block-buster building on it housing six storeys of high-end ($250,000) condos, condos which will have underground parking accessed through a commercial downtown back alley, past the dumpsters and other objects usually found behind restaurants, shops and bars, and overlooking the city bus terminal, just a block away from the City Mission. I do not in any way disparage any of these – I ride the bus myself quite often, and patronize the restaurants and shops, etc., and the Mission serves an important need, but I would not spend $250,000 to make them my neighbors. Just sayin'.
Not surprisingly, objections have been raised to this scheme and over 5,000 signatures were gathered on a petition to save the park and turn it over to a willing and able Park District to maintain – a petition which now requires the City to hold an election on the matter.
The City does NOT want high voter turnout. They have good reason to believe their plan will be unpopular with many voters. Years of experience, and this year's Council standing on the shoulders of their giant predecessors, however, has found the way:
Schedule the election for June 20. This way UND students will not be able to participate very easily. The spirit of "get out the student vote" so prevalent in some earlier issues (to the point where there were either shuttles provided to polling places or voting right on campus) will not be seen this time around if the City has its way. The date chosen will actually cost the taxpayers some $50,000 because it will be a one-issue vote, rather than placed on the normal November ballot. There is no reason to rush this vote before a scheduled election other than to manipulate the result.
The City Council is meeting Monday to decide to require everyone to vote at only ONE polling place – Alerus, which is not convenient to anyone unless they work there. People who normally vote in their own neighborhoods must go to extreme effort and take considerable time away from their workday just to get to the polling place. If they were successful in any numbers, you can just imagine the wait. The City doesn't expect this, of course. The excuse given for voting in only one place rather than in the precincts, like all other votes ever held, is to "save" taxpayers $5,000, laughable considering the fact that their insistence on a one-issue election will cost $50,000.
Personally, I happen to believe that Arbor Park is a greater asset to downtown Grand Forks than one more condo development, which has a great potential for failure as an end result. Many don't like the idea that a developer from wherever should come and get a bargain on publicly-owned land plus 5 years of tax abatement – both state income tax and property tax – while other residents and businesses lose their properties if they don't pay taxes. The developer asked for 10 years, by the way, and the City initially offered that as well as a $1 price on the land, but public outcry called that off and reduced the package (at least until after the vote) to 5 years.
Whether the people of Grand Forks agree or disagree with me, it is not legitimate for the City to attempt to disenfranchise voters. The people will pay for this and they have an absolute right to vote on it. That is what we fought a revolution for.
All of the above stems from too much government. We now have local governments choosing winners and losers in business and to hell with what the people want or what the marketplace dictates. The drive to accomplish this project over heated objection, and to further try to engineer a specific vote is unnatural. It comes about through powerful people tempted by more power.
Someone from the public asked at a City Council meeting recently, why the builder couldn't develop another plot of land – a desolate, neglected, ugly weedpatch a block away. This would mean that an eyesore would be constructively developed and the people would continue to enjoy the beauty of the park. The answer came swiftly: the City doesn't OWN that parcel, so they couldn't sell it. Which begs the question, why are they so desperate to become real estate tycoons? Why not direct the developer to the private sector? I'm not going to answer that. You don't need me to and besides, the Council doesn't like to have its integrity questioned. They said so. It's obvious that something is rotten in Grand Forks.
The bottom line here is that the concept of "Renaissance Zones", which is the general idea behind such activities as these, was never intended – or at least it was never sold to the public – as a way for random developers to access public funds for private gain. It was intended to shore up and improve blighted areas. One thinks of crime-ridden inner cities in the Rust Belt, not a prosperous town in North Dakota.
The present misuse of these taxpayer-funded programs gives huge incentives to developers, members of city councils and the building trades to support them. It is a gross distortion of the marketplace and free enterprise as well as abuse of taxpayers. Another word for "taxpayer", under our Declaration of Independence, is "voter". By effectively manipulating an election to disenfranchise these voter/taxpayers, we have an all-too-common form of 21st Century American corruption.
If the Arbor Park issue is decided by an elite group dedicated to its personal bottom line, it would be a flagrant misuse of the election process. Either way, let us begin immediately to address the larger issue – the one which underlies the corruption. We must eliminate the source, namely government programs that insert government into business, putting government in business for itself at our expense. We should abolish, or at least reject locally, programs such as "Renaissance", "Renewal" or "Vibrancy" programs or commissions. Make America "great" again by returning to the separation of government and business that made it great in the first place, shrink government to the barest of essentials and let business do business without government interfering to give out favors that we get to pay for. Make America "American" again. Let this be the legacy of Arbor Park, regardless of the outcome of this costly and divisive election – that we cut government out of our business sector and go back to what has worked to make America the success it has been.