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Dave Olson, Published September 19 2010

Anything but a yes man: Moorhead City Council member Stueland defends his ‘no’ votes

It would be going too far to say Luther Stueland always votes “no.”

But since joining the Moorhead City Council in January, Stueland has voted against council motions far more often than the council’s other seven regular voting members.

And when he does say nay, he’s often in the minority.

No, scratch that.

He is the minority.

Stueland voted against council motions 44 times between early January and early September, a review of council minutes shows.

He was the lone dissenter 36 times.

Council member Mark Hintermeyer has the next-highest “no” count with 10.

During last week’s council meeting, Stueland voted against motions 10 times and was the solo dissenter in eight of the votes.

When the council voted in August to replace the roof of a city-owned building rented by the Rourke Art Gallery Museum, Stueland was the only council member to vote against the motion.

The roof will cost about $118,000, with the museum expected to cover just under half of the expense.

Stueland was also the lone dissenter when the council agreed to replace a large shelter at Gooseberry Park at a cost of about three-quarters of a million dollars.

The Rourke and Gooseberry votes were in line with Stueland’s campaign mantra: Local government should provide police and fire protection and basic infrastructure, but beyond that, spending should be limited.

“I have a core philosophy that kind of guides where I want to go,” Stueland said, adding, however, that he’s open to other views.

If someone presents compelling evidence that “something just couldn’t possibly function in the free market and it’s an absolute necessity to maintain order in the city of Moorhead, then I could change my position on that specific item,” Stueland said.

Cabin pressure

When the council recently voted to move a historic log cabin from flood-prone Woodlawn Park, Stueland was one of two council members who said “no” to the transfer, which will be paid for with about $100,000 in state tax dollars.

Stueland was subsequently the lone dissenter when the council approved about $72,000 worth of improvements to Woodlawn Park, an apparent peace offering to neighbors wounded by the loss of their cabin.

The votes confirmed Stueland’s aversion to spending tax dollars on things other than core services and highlighted a major difference between himself and council members such as Mark Altenburg, who, like Stueland, joined the council in January.

“I believe the better your parks and schools are, it buoys your property value,” Altenburg said.

“You can eliminate property taxes,” he added, “but you’ll also destroy your (home) property value, which is the single largest investment anybody makes.”

Altenburg stressed that while council members can hold differing views, the tone on the board this past year has been one of mutual respect.

“He’s not doing it (voting ‘no’) to frustrate the process. He’s doing it because he’s truly sincere in his beliefs,” Altenburg said of Stueland.

“Even when we disagree, we are not disagreeable,” Altenburg said.

Brenda Elmer, who also joined the council in January, said many council members have taken stands that left them, at one time or another, in the minority.

“I haven’t sensed any hard feelings on issues that have come up so far,” she said.

“Luther’s rationale on his issues is very well thought out,” she added. “I don’t always vote with Luther, but I really respect that he explains where he’s coming from.”

Tea and taxes

Stueland said when it comes to fighting lost causes, he gets more ribbing from friends than fellow council members.

“I think the council has actually been pretty respectful of dissenting opinion, and I think it’s good to have healthy debate,” he said.

“Healthy debate? I don’t know where you get that,” joked Hintermeyer, who had poked his head into a city hall meeting room where Stueland was being interviewed.

Stueland, who at the outset was lukewarm to a story and photo that focused on him, laughed at the intrusion.

But he quickly turned serious when the talk returned to how the city is run.

He said council members may sometimes disagree with his stands on issues, but the story is different with city residents.

“I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised at the positive response that I’ve gotten on nearly every vote I’ve taken,” he said.

That is particularly true, he said, of the city’s northside 1st Ward, which he represents.

“I know I’m not the only person who thinks like this,” said Stueland, who doesn’t shy from comparisons to the tea party movement and its emphasis on small government.

“For me, what propelled me to take an active part in policymaking was there was a brand of limited government and the limited government brand kind of faded,” said Stueland, who is a project team leader at Noridian Mutual Insurance Co.

As city leaders refine the 2011 budget this fall, a lone dissenting voice may still carry power, said Altenburg. Some spending measures require at least six votes, and sometimes seven, to pass, he predicted.

“Luther’s perspective will become very important as we move into the budget cycle, Altenburg said. “If he can convince one more person to go along with him, he can make quite a difference.”

Stueland said he prefers to put vote battles behind him and to focus on tackling the next issue.

Win or lose, he doesn’t plan to change his philosophy in regards to government.

“I sleep better knowing I’m doing what I said I’d do,” he said.

Saying ‘no’

Below are the number of times Moorhead City Council members voted against motions made at council meetings between January and early September:

Luther Stueland -- *44

Mark Hintermeyer -- 10

Greg Lemke -- 8

Nancy Otto -- 8

Mark Altenburg -- 8

Diane Wray Williams -- 6

Dan Hunt -- 6

Brenda Elmer -- 4

Mayor Mark Voxland**-- 1

(* was the lone dissenter in 36 of those, **tie breaker)

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555