GRAND FORKS — This week, Grand Forks petitioners calling for a citywide referendum on the future of a corn milling plant filed more than 5,000 signatures at City Hall.
This is a great moment for the future of a great proposal. The American subsidiary of the Fufeng Group hopes to build a major new factory and create hundreds of jobs in the city. Skeptics, however, questioned the traffic and environmental impacts as well as the company’s ties to China, where it is headquartered.
At first glance, the 5,318 signatures collected appear to be far more than the group would need to force a vote, suggesting the issue will soon head for an election. But now that the petitioners have filed the signatures, things get a little complicated.
City hall officials are preparing to consider the petitions, which the city charter gives them 20 days to do so. This will mean a tight count of the validity of all signatures by city staff, as well as a legal review of the petition itself.
The process is almost certain to reject some of the signatures. This is to be expected, as petition collectors for any referendum often collect scribbled names and addresses that are unreadable, unverifiable, or could be from someone who lives outside the city limits.
Such was the case for a petition five years ago, which sought to put the future of downtown Arbor Park to a citywide vote. Petitioners seeking to block a construction deal at the Fourth Street site collected 4,600 signatures at the end of 2016, but 1,500 were rejected. The petitioners later returned with 870 more signatures (the petition succeeded in getting an election; residents voted to demolish the park the following year).
Petitioners must meet a threshold of 3,617 signatures, or 15% of city voters in the last gubernatorial election. If they do — and if the petition clears legal review — city staff will take it to the public for a vote.
Grand Forks City Attorney Dan Gaustad did not respond to an email seeking comment. City Clerk Sherie Lundmark, speaking Thursday, said she didn’t have much to add after signatures were delivered on Wednesday.
“They’re recent,” she said, “and there’s not really an update.”
The petitioners aimed for a development agreement between Fufeng leaders and the town hall on February 22. If it happens, the citywide referendum would allow local voters to untie it, removing the framework of the agreement that the city and agribusiness use to guide construction. While it’s unclear whether voters’ rejection of the deal would prevent the city from building the plant, it would likely send a political message strong enough to scuttle it all the same.
But the timing of the filing of the petition raises questions that do not yet have clear answers. The submission deadline to appear on the June primary ballot is April 11, County Auditor Debbie Nelson told the Herald this week. That means a 20-day review starting this week could struggle to unfold quickly enough – making it unclear when a referendum on the Fufeng Group’s future will go to voters.
In the meantime, City Council Speaker Dana Sande said the plan was still to keep moving forward to begin licensing and construction of the plant.
“I think we are still at full speed. I spoke with several people who signed the petition who are still in favor of bringing Fufeng into our community, but they felt it was important enough to put it to a public vote,” said said Sande. “I still believe the consensus in our community is that this is a good thing for our community. If it comes to a vote, I believe the community will support the corn milling facility in Grand Forks.