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Wendy Reuer, Published September 05 2010

Moorhead term limits in legal gray area as loophole allows longer service

A Moorhead ordinance prevents any one person from serving for too long in city-appointed positions. But it is another law that has kept longtime Moorhead Public Service Commission President Ken Norman at his post much longer than normally allowed.

Norman was first appointed to the commission in 1988 and has served seven terms. His last appointed term officially ended in 2007, yet more than three years later, the longtime member and president is still there.

The MPS Commission, which is made up of five members appointed by the City Council, approves the utility budget and establishes water and electric rates for residents of Moorhead.

In 2007, a vote of 4-5 decided Norman’s term would not be extended, according to Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland. However, if no one else is appointed, the city law allows Norman to continue serving until someone is found to replace him.

Voxland said the appointment is technically following the rules.

“The way our city charter reads, it is in a gray area. First Ward council members have chosen not to appoint anybody. The person in the position serves until a new appointment has been made,” Voxland said. “He’s on the commission simply because the council members haven’t chosen a replacement yet.”

Norman’s last appointment came after a contentious debate between council members, arguing that although Norman has served the city well and has legal expertise, the council should follow its own rules and appoint a new face.

Nancy Otto, a council member from Ward 1, says she has no intention of finding a replacement for Norman anytime soon.

“We choose to keep him on; he’s got the experience and the legal expertise that we need,” Otto said.

Norman himself is OK with that.

The Moorhead attorney said he made a commitment to the community and plans to stick to it.

“Ever since the first year that I was on the commission, I always told the First Ward council people that if they want to appoint someone else, that’s their choice; they can do it,” Norman said.

Otto said right now is the worst possible time for Norman to leave.

The city of Moorhead is currently engaged in a legal battle with the Red River Co-Op over the buyout of 1,500 an­nexed acres on Moorhead’s south side. A court will decide if Moorhead residents pay $2 million or

$8 million for the buyout.

“Depending on the outcome of the case, it could cost us millions of dollars. I trust Ken’s judgment and expertise in dealing with the legal team and his history. Right now, we need him, and he’s willing to serve, thank goodness,” Otto said.

Still, Voxland said he would prefer the council members stick to the rules it creates.

“I have urged the First Ward council members several times to make a new appointment, to get somebody else on, but it really is the council members on First Ward who have to follow through on that,” Voxland said.

Voxland said he believes in term limits as their intended purpose is to keep fresh eyes on matters as well as give all citizens a chance to serve their community.

“I think it falls on elected officials to keep our citizens involved and to put as many as we can on committees. If we did what we did in the ’70s and ’80s, where the same people stayed on committees for years and years, you don’t get that mix, and I think that is important,” Voxland said.

Serving his community is what has kept Norman on the commission.

“The fact that anybody that lives in the community should put back in the community, that’s what I was taught by my first boss. As long as I’m doing something productive on the commission, I’ll be willing to serve,” Norman said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530