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Published June 05 2012

Loophole allows pro-sales tax group to withhold donors

FARGO – A private group urging voters to extend Fargo’s half-cent sales tax on Tuesday say they’ve raised $25,000 toward the campaign, but who those financial boosters are will likely remain a secret.

The “Protect Fargo Committee” has declined requests from The Forum to voluntarily disclose its backers, and local and state officials say an oversight in North Dakota law meadoesn’t have to.

Committees advocating for or against statewide measures are required by state law to disclose major donations, but the law neglects to include provisions governing committees campaigning for local ballot measures.

“A sales tax measure, initiated by a resolution of the city commission, is not a statewide measure, and a group campaigning in support or opposition of such a measure is not a political activity. Thus, these regulations do not apply,” Fargo City Attorney Erik Johnson wrote in an advisory letter last week to Auditor Steve Sprague.

Citing a need to invest in Fargo’s future, a group of private citizens formed the “Protect Fargo Committee” last month, hoping to urge voters to approve Fargo’s sales tax measure.

City voters will decide Tuesday whether to extend a half-cent infrastructure sales tax for another 20 years. Fargo officials have said the revenue would be used to fund an array of necessary projects, such as internal flood protection and street repairs.

The chairman of the “Protect Fargo Committee” is Cole Carley, the outgoing president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In a meeting with The Forum’s editorial board two weeks ago, Carley said the group had raised $25,000 with the goal of collecting more before Election Day.

The donors reportedly include local financial institutions, professional firms, utility companies and individuals – but the group has denied requests from The Forum for a detailed list of those financial contributors.

“The donors have requested that they stay anonymous, and we are honoring their requests,” committee member John Boulger said in a statement to The Forum.

Carley said the funds would pay for commercials, yard signs and direct mail to encourage Fargo voters to check “yes” on their ballots Tuesday.

Public records give some insight into how the money is being spent.

The group has bought at least $3,100 in radio advertising that’s set to air on local stations through Monday, The Forum found.

“Protect Fargo” bought $650 in ad time from WDAY-AM, which – like The Forum – is owned by Forum Communications.

The committee also purchased more than $2,400 worth of ad time on four stations owned by Radio Fargo-Moorhead.

The North Dakota Legislature passed a law in 2005 adding reporting requirements for local candidates.

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger said the oversight dealing with local measure committees is something lawmakers might want to address next session.

“We haven’t had situations with that type of city-level measure where the amount of money raised merits disclosure,” Jaeger said. “It hasn’t been ignored; it just hasn’t happened that often.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541ns the group