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Erik Burgess, Published June 06 2013

One-man watchdog ruffles feathers: 81-year-old Moorhead man a consistent critic of city business

MOORHEAD - At 81 years old, Sel Nygard admits he doesn’t have many hobbies.

He doesn’t watch much television. He gave up coin detecting, and he’s long been out of the dating game.

So to pass the time, Nygard keeps one eye on the Minnesota Twins, and the other fixed on city government.

Nygard estimated he has written around 30 letters over the past few years to both The Forum and Moorhead city officials, detailing a wide gamut of concerns and complaints.

He has called city employees liars, questioned the fiscal responsibility of those within City Hall and urged the mayor and a former council member to resign.

It’s a frustrating job, Nygard said in an interview this week, but he feels called to do it in the name of those who are too afraid to speak out against power.

“My hobby is just watching and trying to do what’s right for the less fortunate people,” he said. “And my whole life has been devoted to that.”

Nygard said he is effective at constructive criticism and more than willing to admit when he’s wrong.

Mayor Mark Voxland would say he’s wrong about the constructive part.

Voxland, who has served as mayor since 2001 and was on the council for 14 years prior to that, can think of about six people who call him regularly to air concerns about the city. A couple of them have been good devil’s advocates, helping him better see the other side of an argument.

Nygard is not one of those people, Voxland said.

“I don’t know if I ever got anything good out of conversations with Sel,” he said. “Usually, he’s pretty wound up by the time he calls me.”

‘I get a little harsh’

Every City Council member has a handful of residents who make sure to call and speak their mind, no matter the topic.

For Councilman Mark Hintermeyer, Sel Nygard is one of those guys who calls him “routinely.”

“There are people that religiously watch the council meetings and will want to comment on what you were wearing that night,” Hintermeyer said with a laugh. “That’s kinda part of the game.”

Hintermeyer said he has always gotten along with Nygard, but the consistent critic’s dealings with city officials are often strained.

His weapon of choice is a letter, often sent to a gaggle of city officials and editors and reporters at The Forum. Since 2007, the newspaper has published 11 of Nygard’s missives as letters to the editor.

In one unpublished letter addressed to the mayor and council dated June 14, 2007, Nygard called for the mayor to resign, citing Voxland’s “lack of leadership and compassion.” Later that year, he called Moorhead’s city government a “dictatorship” that lacked honesty and common sense.

He suggested in an unpublished letter in 2006 that then-City Manager Bruce Messelt take a course in anger management.

Messelt, who has since left the area and is now the Chisago County administrator, said he somewhat remembers working with Nygard, and he doesn’t recall having any issues, calling him a “good guy.”

Messelt said he was recently at a social gathering when he discovered that Nygard is actually a friend of one of his wife’s relatives.

“It was just kinda funny that his name came up,” he said. “And it was all positive. It was like, I smiled and went ‘Oh yeah, I kinda remember Sel.’ ”

More recently, Nygard has thrown barbs at Deputy City Manager Scott Hutchins, calling him a “liar.”

Hutchins said he doesn’t know Nygard well and it “goes without saying” that he doesn’t agree with Nygard’s assessment of him.

“He certainly is passionate about a number of issues and chooses to let people know his opinion on things, which is just fine,” Hutchins said.

Nygard says he’s simply pushing for city officials to live by his personal mantra: “be honest, don’t lie,” which leads him to be a bit brash.

“He doesn’t seem to always get his facts in order,” Voxland said. “And he will vilify one person in one of his letters and somebody else in another. He kinda bounces back and forth.”

A little more than two years ago, Nygard tried a complete about face. He wrote a glowing review of the mayor and council that was meant to be genuine.

“I believe the most important thing we can do as citizens is give a big thank-you to our Mayor and Council,” he wrote on Dec. 28, 2010, a letter that was printed in The Forum.

It was his one conscious attempt to be overtly nice to see if it worked.

It didn’t, he said.

“I’ll have to admit, I get a little harsh sometimes,” Nygard said. “Because I know that honey and sugar will get you more than sticks and stones, but when you try honey and sugar like I did on that letter, and then still nothing happens, then you get a little disgusted.”

‘I do what I feel is best’

Nygard was first bit by the politics bug when he was a Boy Scout growing up in McVille, N.D., a small town of a couple of hundred people in Nelson County between Devils Lake and Grand Forks.

His parents moved to Fargo in 1952 when he went into the service. When he got out, he began working at Bell Telephone in Fargo, where he was for 17 years before taking early retirement at the age of 40.

Several other jobs would fill the void between then and now – including a stint on the Fargo Housing Authority – but it’s when Nygard moved to Moorhead in 2004 that his one-man watchdog campaign began.

“I don’t watch the soap operas. I just listen to the news and try to do what I feel is best for the city of Moorhead,” Nygard said. “And I think I’ve accomplished that in a lot of ways.”

Nygard may not like soap operas, but he loves soap boxes. He often writes about concerns with public housing and tenants’ rights and is a budget hawk who continually suggests ways to cut what he sees as needless government spending. One of his most strident beliefs combines both issues: He would like the public housing agencies in Moorhead and Clay County to merge into one entity.

The 81-year-old gadfly is not without controversy. In 2010, then-City Councilman Greg Lemke, the city’s first openly gay council member, called for Nygard to be removed as a member of the Human Rights Commission after Nygard made comments that being gay is “un-Christian.”

Nygard ended up staying on that board until early 2012, finishing out his three-year term, said City Manager Michael Redlinger.

A couple of years later, Nygard fired back at Lemke – in a letter, of course.

It was May 2012, and Lemke had since lost his council seat and was working at his as director of public safety at Minnesota State University Moorhead, a title he still holds today.

In a letter to the editor, which was not published, Nygard called Lemke an “embarrassment for all of the citizens of Fargo/Moorhead and especially the law enforcement” and asked that he resign or be removed from the faculty at MSUM.

Voxland said that’s one of the problems officials often have with consistent complainers.

“After a while, some of these people lose their focus on what they’re not happy with,” he said. “And they shift to just being against the person they’re writing.”

It’s ‘all I got to do’

The mayor still makes a habit of reading everything that Nygard sends him, as long as it’s signed – his general rule of thumb when he’s flipping through stacks of letters, he said.

“You definitely have to listen to all the comments because there will be a nugget in there that’s good or has some truth,” Voxland said.

And while his letters still pour in, Voxland said Nygard stopped calling him a couple of years ago after Nygard threatened to campaign hard against the longtime mayor in the upcoming election.

“I think he got mad when I said, ‘Well, that oughta get me five more points,’ ” Voxland recalled.

Nygard said he plans to stay watchful as long as he can.

This year, he’ll be campaigning for Hintermeyer, who is running for mayor after Voxland announced in January that he would not be seeking re-election. A new mayor will be elected in November.

At the end of the day, Nygard said he does actually trust “a lot of people in politics,” and that he loves living in Moorhead – which is why he fights so hard to make it a great place, he says.

One suggestion he has given to a council member: shorten the meetings, which can sometimes run for several hours.

“People aren’t going to sit there and listen to those City Council meetings,” he said.

Except for Sel Nygard.

“Well, I listen to them, yes,” he said. “But that’s all I’ve got to do.”

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