City rejects effort to let Grand Forks residents vote on controversial Chinese plant

Opponents of a $350 million Chinese-backed agricultural processing plant proposed in Grand Forks captured far more than the required 3,617 signatures on a petition to put the controversial project up for a vote. Concerns over the environment, taxpayer subsidies and national security due to the proximity of the Grand Forks Air Force Base led a broad-based coalition to collect nearly 4,800 signatures that were validated by the city auditor.

Nevertheless, the Grand Forks Herald reports city hall has rejected the grassroots drive to give residents the final say over what officials characterize as an “administrative matter.”

The decision is a major setback for petitioners, who had hoped to send a development deal with Fufeng Group — plus a smattering of related moves by the city to prepare for the project — to a citywide vote. If they had succeeded, they would have wrested control of the project’s future from City Hall, where momentum has grown behind a massive new plant that promises hundreds of jobs for the community.

But petitioners have voiced concerns that the project could be bad for the environment, or consume too much water. One of the loudest concerns they’ve had is the factory’s link to China, where Fufeng Group — its corporate parent — is headquartered.

The petition organizers got a hint of what might be coming a few days earlier when the city attorney flagged some possible technical issues with some of the petitions turned in.

[City Auditor Maureen] Storstad’s memo, released to the Herald shortly before noon on Friday, echoes many of the arguments made earlier this week by City Attorney Dan Gaustad, who had provided his own analysis of the petitions for Storstad’s final review. That includes a range of technical problems with the petitions themselves — like the names of petition leaders not appearing in all the right places in petition packets, or concerns that the packets aren’t properly precise about the issues to be voted on by the public.

But perhaps the most significant argument, also made by Gaustad earlier this week, is the finding that the petitioners’ targets are an “administrative matter” — one that “may not be referred to the electors of the city.”

The decision apparently clears the way for the Chinese venture to move forward with further vetting by the city. Yet one of the key backers of the petition campaign doesn’t appear to have thrown in the towel yet. Over the weekend he posted on Facebook a “sample email” sent to city hall in an effort to encourage other opponents to turn up the heat on city elected officials.

Good evening, Your problem has changed from the people vs. the project to the people vs. the city government. It is widely being viewed as the government suppressing our right to vote. We deserve a vote. Please figure out how to make it right and restore the faith in our city government.

Thank you,

Ben Grzadzielewski

In another post on Facebook, Grzadzielewski pointed out that the number of supporters who signed the petition nearly equaled the total votes the current mayor received in the last election.

Some people are failing to realize that we are not a small group. While it is true that it is a small group doing the work, it is actually a very large group that wants to have a vote.

Opponents plan to make their numbers apparent at the next Grand Forks City Council meeting. It may well be something of a last stand or the start of the next phase of the effort to convince local officials to reconsider why doing business with such a controversial company raises so many red flags.