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Erik Burgess, Published May 07 2013

Fargo officials bristle at Legislature

FARGO – The legislative sausage-making process is causing some frustration among city leaders here.

That became apparent in a joint meeting Tuesday between the city of Fargo, Fargo Park District and Fargo Public Schools, when several officials said it appears as though state lawmakers, even those from Fargo, do not understand the needs of the city.

The school district, park district and city meet semi-annually to discuss each other’s progress, but the conversation Tuesday was dominated by how to better engage legislators, whose recent 80-day session, the longest in state history, ended early Saturday.

City Commissioner Brad Wimmer said when he goes out to Bismarck to lobby for the city, it is apparent that legislators are not interacting with local leaders.

“Have you talked to Dr. (David) Flowers? Have you talked to Dr. (Jeff) Schatz? Never. Never will they make a call,” Wimmer said, referring to the superintendents of West Fargo and Fargo public school districts, respectively.

“If you’re going to make legislation that affects the schools, you gotta talk to the schools and you gotta work with the schools,” Wimmer said.

Wimmer added that although Diversion Authority Board meetings have been ongoing since 2009, it seemed like legislators this year didn’t know they were happening.

Jim Johnson, president of the school board, suggested going at the leadership in Bismarck, not just individual legislators, and not waiting until the next session to begin talking to them. He used this year’s K-12 funding bill as an example of how he believes there is a “power struggle” going on behind the scenes in Bismarck.

“For it to pass out of the House in the morning, come back the next morning, be reconsidered and killed, only to come back at 2:30 a.m. almost verbatim and put back into a bill – they have a new arc to parliamentary procedure, and we best pay attention to it,” Johnson said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker also expressed frustrations with the current Legislature, calling it the most partisan he’s ever seen. State lawmakers told City Administrator Pat Zavoral this year not to let Walaker return to the Capitol because they found him too brash.

“Which didn’t bother me at all because I hate the Legislature,” Walaker said. “I thought it was extremely partisan – extremely, extremely partisan. They did not want anybody in the Democratic Party to get credit for anything.”

Zavoral pointed out that while the process was difficult, the end result was that Fargo received “exactly what we asked the governor for,” in terms of flood protection dollars, school funding and others.

John Strand, a school board member, echoed the positivity, saying he would rather be here than dealing with the rapid-growth issues in the Oil Patch communities.

“We’re so fortunate here, and I’m glad the Legislature is done,” Strand said. “Now we can go back to doing our work and doing it locally and not being victims because we’re really, really, really lucky. I wouldn’t trade with any state in the country.”

Zavoral said Tuesday’s meeting was simply brainstorming and that in the coming weeks, city staff would be discussing options for how the three subdivisions could move forward in engaging the Legislature in the future.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518