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Wendy Reuer, Published February 13 2012

Moorhead rejects paraphernalia ban petition, citing invalid 1,797 signatures

MOORHEAD – The City Council here rejected a petition to repeal a controversial paraphernalia ban Monday.

While the legitimacy of signatures was the primary reason for rejection, petition organizers say they call foul on the process of certification.

City Clerk Jill Wenger recommended the rejection after 1,797 of the 2,915 submitted signatures were found invalid.

Signatures were found invalid if names were not legible, the person was not a Moorhead resident or not registered to vote. Signatures must be from Moorhead residents who have registered to vote.

The certification process found 1,139 signatures were not registered voters.

“We registered over 1,100 people. There was no doubt in my mind it was going to get thrown out. It didn’t surprise me,” said Discontent owner Tom Tepley, who helped organize the petition with other smoke shop owners and employees.

Tepley delivered the petition on Jan. 6 to Wenger’s office and a second batch of signatures on Jan. 10.

In Wenger’s report, she said she requested a list of registered voters from the county auditor. The request was intentionally delayed one week so that any new voter registrations submitted by Jan. 11 could be entered into the auditor’s master list.

“Reviewers made every effort to establish if they were a registered voter,” Wenger said Monday night.

The petition review process took six days and a total of 191 hours. Wenger and 13 others helped in the review process: five city staff members and eight Moorhead police volunteers.

City Manager Michael Redlinger said volunteers were sought because the cost of using staff time for certification would have been “astronomical.”

Tepley said using police department volunteers tainted the process.

“It’s a bias as far as I’m concerned,” Tepley said.

Ward 2 Council members Mark Altenburg and Heidi Durand said they received a lot of feedback from residents concerning the petition. Altenburg said many residents in his ward questioned the use of police volunteers as a conflict of interest.

“If it is a concern that our citizens have and are bringing it to our attention, we’re not doing our job if we don’t bring it back to the council,” Durand said.

City Attorney John Shockley said the signatures were reviewed in teams of two to preserve integrity.

“The reviewers themselves contributed nothing to the procedure,” he said. “There is a large amount of transparency in the procedure. That is why we conducted it the way we did.”

The petition seeks to repeal the paraphernalia ban passed by the City Council on Nov. 28. The ordinance makes selling or possessing any item law enforcement deems drug paraphernalia a misdemeanor.

The ordinance mirrors state law, but is stricter. Under state law, an item must be proved to have been used for drug use.

Wenger said petition organizers now have 30 days to correct the non-compliant signatures.

Tepley said he will do just that.

“I just believe there is something that needs to be looked at,” he said.

The petition needs at least 1,847 signatures to move forward, or about 10 percent of the 18,475 Moorhead voters recorded in the November 2008 presidential election.

Tepley closed his Moorhead shop Jan. 11 after the ordinance took effect. He said on Monday that he may open again and circulate the petition at his stores.

Tepley said he will also submit the rejected petition to his attorneys. He said the city has never dealt with a petition before, and the City Charter language may be flawed.

“The charter is so vague. They designed the charter as such so that nobody could ever challenge the City Council,” Tepley said.

Wenger said if a corrected petition is submitted, she will again have 30 days to certify it.

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