West Fargo City Commissioner Mandy George asked that more discussion about the project be added to the commission's agenda during the Monday, Jan. 18, meeting.
In a 3-2 vote in December, the city agreed to buy five homes along the 500 block of Sheyenne Street North for about $1.15 million, with plans to raze the homes, use the land temporarily for parking and later sell it as an initiative for development. Commissioner Mark Simmons and Mayor Bernie Dardis voted against the purchase, while George and Commissioners Brad Olson and Eric Gjerdevig supported the idea.
Economic Development Director Lauren Orchard said the city would use economic development sales tax funds for the purchase.
The five homeowners had approached the city together and agreed all homes would be sold for $200,000 per home plus $30,000 in relocation costs for each home. In addition to the purchase price, clearing the land and other costs puts the city at an all-in price of $1.45 million, Orchard said.
But since the deal was made public, a number of residents voiced their opposition to the sale, citing concerns that the process had not been transparent, no final appraisals were presented and that city staff had overreached in its duties.
Since George was one of the commissioners who approved of the project in December and had met with the homeowners, she was allowed to make a motion on Monday for the city to reconsider the purchase.
"Only a commissioner who voted for the project is allowed to bring it back to the commission to be reconsidered," Dardis said.
Although purchase agreements for the homes have not been created and will still need to come before the commission for final approval if signed by homeowners, a motion to reconsider the vote could have restarted the entire process.
"Looking back this, mistakes were made and I take full responsibility for this," George said Monday night. "I want to apologize for any of the stress I may have caused regarding this. I'm a new commissioner and I'm still learning."
George said initially she felt this was a similar situation to eminent domain, where property owners are normally paid a higher premium by government entities. Each of the five homes have been listed for sale publicly and ranged in price from $140,000 to $190,000.
However, since the homeowners approached the city and not the other way around, George said the $230,000 payments may be too much.
"The homeowners came to us, so there is no way we need to overpay," she said Monday. "Not only are we overpaying, but the Zoom meetings have made it a challenge to hear what the public has to say."
George also added that appraisals must be done to get the current values of the homes.
"If someone else were to buy their homes, this is what they would pay," she said.
George made the motion to reconsider, which was seconded by Dardis. She planned to make another motion that would allow public comment on the matter Monday night, but after the motion to reconsider failed on a 3-2 vote, with only George and Dardis in favor of it, no public comment was made.
Commissioner Mark Simmons explained his vote in a statement to the West Fargo Pioneer.
"My action tonight reflects what I have always believed – we must take responsibility for our votes and not be intimidated into voting a certain way," Simmons said. "As commissioners, we have been elected to represent the entire community. I may not always agree with how the vote turns out, but I will not attack other commissioners, staff or the process just because I don’t agree. That’s not how democracy works."
On Monday, Simmons asked for a vote of confidence for city staff, who he said have been the target of numerous complaints and inaccurate comments in regard to the purchase.
"[Staff] evaluated the situation based on the direction that was given to them," he said. "They then brought the information to the City Commission during a public meeting so it could be discussed and voted on by the commission. In conclusion, it is time to move on together as a commission to continue to serve our community."
Dardis agreed that city staff acted appropriately and added that staff should not be criticized for bringing innovative and creative ideas to the commission.
"It is absolutely the job of our staff to bring new incentives forward," Dardis said. "We don't have to agree on them. That is a decision that is made solely by the commission. We should never ever try to hamper the creativity based on the experience these staff members have."
The commission unanimously passed the vote of confidence.
"Like the five commissioners, the staff's heart is in the right place to serve the citizens of West Fargo, too," City Administrator Tina Fisk said. "Thank you. I know staff will appreciate that, as I do. Serving the public isn't always the easiest thing to do, but in a city like West Fargo, you do it because it's a passion."
The city attorney can proceed with drawing up purchase agreements for each home, which would have to be signed and returned to the City Commission for approval before a sale would proceed.