Appointment to Public Service Commission draws objections

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Mayor Johnathan Judd’s appointments of citizens to serve on Moorhead’s many boards and commissions rarely draw much public attention – so little, in fact, that they’re routinely included on the City Council’s “consent agenda” and routinely approved without discussion.
One of the 15 people named to nine boards Monday night broke that pattern in a big way. Among the public bodies receiving new members – from the airport commission to the parks advisory board – a new member appointed to Moorhead Public Service generated a pointed letter of protest, two citizens arguing against the appointment, and a spirited rebuttal by the mayor.
In the end, council member Heidi Durand was confirmed as the new Ward 2 representative on the MPS board by a unanimous vote of her colleagues. (Durand abstained from the vote, and council members Shelly Carlson and Deb White were absent.) But in the meantime, her nomination generated charges by the Moorhead Business Association of violations of “ethics and trust” and pointing to “some unknown conspiracy.”
In her letter, MBA executive director Sheri Larson wrote that MPS has operated for decades as an independent branch of the city, “quietly going about its business of providing reliable electrical power and clean water to the businesses and residents of Moorhead.” She added, “We would like that independence to remain and for MPS to operate as they have for many years.”
MBA directors Pat Kovash and Jim Steen objected to the optics of what they termed “a member of the council appointing herself to the board.” Kovash said, “If a council member wants to appoint herself, she should step down.”
Steen, who also chairs the city’s Charter Commission, said the appointment “opens up a can of worms.” He cited a council resolution dating back to 1896, when the public utility was authorized, saying, “It states that it must be ‘strictly run as a business and separate from city politics.’”
Both men pointed out that the MPS board is one of the few appointments that carries a salary. It consists of five voting members, one appointed by the mayor from each ward and a fifth who serves at large. Each received $197.23 per month. One member of the council also attends the semimonthly meetings as the city’s liaison but does not receive that salary. Instead, the council rep – currently Chuck Hendrickson, with Deb White as the alternate – is receives a per-diem by the city for attending the two monthly meetings. The monthly MPS salary and city per-diem for two meetings per month come out roughly equal.
Mayor Judd responded heatedly to the business group’s letter and comments. “Questioning the council’s ethics and trust because of this decision is disingenuous. It’s certainly not ‘Moorhead Proud,’” he scolded. “Folks, we did our homework. Council member Durand has sat in on MPS meetings for the past eight years” (as the council’s previous liaison) “and is well versed on the issues. Her knowledge will benefit rate payers and taxpayers in our community.”
He added, “There is absolutely no conspiracy. You can trust us. We appoint folks looking out for the best interests of all of us.”
Enmity between city government and MPS goes back at least a decade. The utility manages the city’s water and power. In addition, it injects $9 million per year into the city’s general budget.
Suspicions of a city council takeover were spurred by the upcoming makeup of the PSC board after the three new members are seated Feb. 1. Past and present council members will be in the majority. In addition to Durand, who will represent Ward 2, former council member Joel Paulsen was appointed to represent Ward 3. A third appointee, Sebastian McDougall, will serve Ward 4. All three begin their terms Feb. 1. The fourth ward-specific member is Mari Dailey, who completed her term on the council in 2018. The fifth member, Kristine Thompson, was appointed at large.
Reached Tuesday, Durand stressed that she did not appoint herself. “At a council workshop last fall, the group generally agreed it would be good for one of our members to serve on the commission. I had been there the longest and had the most expertise, so I volunteered.” After eight years as the council’s liaison, she will have considerably more longevity dealing with the utility’s governance that the other MPS board members.
Durand emphasized that she will not accept the monthly MPS salary while also serving on the city council. That may not extend beyond the end of 2020. “As it now stands, I don’t plan to run for reelection,” she told the Extra. “This is my last year.”
Reflecting on the controversy, she said, “Both MPS and the council have to start agreeing that neither will get absolutely everything we want. As for what’s gone on in the past, neither side is so innocent. We need to let go of that history and focus on the future.”
No questions were raised about any of the other appointments approved at Monday’s meeting. They include the following: Airport Committee, Gerald Allen. Art & Culture Commission, Timothy Wollenzien and Jeremiah Jones. Human Rights Commission, Heather Keeler, Nate Aalgaard and Shinwar Mayi. Library Board, Chizuko Shastri. LARL Board, Chizuko Shastri. Park Advisory Board, Janelle Brandon, James Hand and Gia Rassier. Planning Commission, Brent Behm. Public Housing, Ezzat Alhaidar.

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