When the Fergus Falls City Council voted to spend $8 million on a new hockey arena, some local residents were angry the issue wasn't put to a citywide vote.
Residents are tired of paying higher taxes for projects that benefit only a few people, said Daryl Synstelien, a leading opponent of the arena. Synstelien said he's not against spending money for economic development, but he thinks a hockey arena doesn't make money, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.
"We have folks that have lost their jobs. They're concerned about losing their homes," he said. "And now the city council is talking about bonding for up to $8 million for a project that by all accounts will create a negative cash flow in the city of Fergus Falls."
Synstelien was angry enough to organize local citizens, and draft an ordinance requiring a vote of residents for large projects. He and others collected more than 900 signatures to put the measure on a ballot.
A special election was called for April 22. But this week a small group of business leaders took the issue to court, and a judge issued a temporary injunction that cancelled the election. The business leaders challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance and sued the city to stop it.
Steve Rufer, a lawyer who represents the business coalition, said the proposed ordinance is so broad it could require a vote on nearly any project. That would cripple economic development in Fergus Falls, he said.
"You can imagine if it's a development type project and they have the choice of coming to Fergus Falls where the city can't make a commitment to them for maybe a year or two until there's been an election and possibly a legal challenge and possibly an appeal," Rufer said. "They can go to Moorhead, or Alexandria, Detroit Lakes or Brainerd where the city council can say, 'sure we'd like to have your project here. We'll build you a building or whatever.' We would be at a huge competitive disadvantage."
Rufer believes the proposed ordinance will be found unconstitutional. A hearing is scheduled for June when Judge Mark Hansen will consider a permanent injunction against a citywide vote on the spending ordinance.
City Attorney Rolf Nycklemoe said even though Fergus Falls is the defendant in the case, the city will not defend the proposed ordinance or the residents' right to vote on it.
"The city is not going to be arguing for a special election or against a special election or for the proposed legislation or against it," Nycklemoe said. "That's for others to argue."
That means the local residents who initiated the spending ordinance must defend it.
But the citizens group doesn't have money to hire an attorney, Synstelien said. He's not sure how the citizens group will defend its proposed ordinance.
Rufer said the temporary court injunction stopping the election offers time for a cooling off period. He's hoping the two sides can come together.
Synstelien said he'd love to discuss the dispute over lunch. But that lunch has yet to be scheduled.
"The concern is much larger than simply should we have a hockey arena in Fergus Falls or not," Synstelien said. "It really is the decision to expend taxpayer dollars without the approval of the taxpayers for projects which they would not necessarily have elected their councilmen to decide upon."