GRAND FORKS — As Grand Forks negotiated to bring the Fufeng Group to the city, there were plenty of hot moments at city council meetings. But Monday was the hottest yet, as a man speaking to city council leaders threatened in a boisterous exchange to “go through that table”.
Moments later, the council voted 6 to 1, with Katie Dachtler dissenting, to annex a tract of land north of the town, absorbing the likely future site of a Fufeng Group corn mill and a strip of businesses along Highway 81.
After the meeting, city planner Ryan Brooks told the Herald he believed annexation would take effect immediately.
The move was controversial, as property owners in the area worried for months about rising taxes and costs associated with moving from Falconer Township, where they were previously located. They also worried about what kind of Chinese agribusiness neighbor Fufeng Group is, and what increased truck traffic or smells might mean for their business group.
Prior to the vote, a number of speakers spoke out on the city’s annexation plan. One identified himself as Jerol Gohrick, president of the North Dakota Sons of Liberty, who said he traveled 300 miles to attend the meeting.
“You smug donkeys stand there and do this to the citizens here. How rude,” he said, before mentioning the ongoing lawsuit over the city’s decision to reject petitions that called for a citywide referendum on Fufeng’s arrival. “How can you sit there and deny these people the right to vote, to have a voice, to have anything?”
As Gohrick began to address City Administrator Todd Feland, seated several feet to his right, Mayor Brandon Bochenski asked Gohrick to address elected officials on the dais in front of him. That’s when the loud and abrupt exchange began.
“Do you want to make fun of me again? Gohrick asked. “Laugh at me one more time, I’ll fall on this table for you.” You shut your mouth. I have the floor, don’t I? Do I have the floor?
It was unclear who Gohrick thought had made fun of him, although he and Bochenski were the only speakers at the moment.
“Sir, you’re not allowed to be disrespectful and talk like that,” Bochenski quipped.
“You disrespect these people every day,” Gohrick replied.
“Sir, you can keep talking, but you’re going to have to tone it down,” Bochenski said.
After several more moments, in which Gohrick asked the council to keep the Chinese company out of Grand Forks, the end of his remarks was met with a round of applause from guests in the council chamber.
The tense moment served as a reminder of how divisive the Fufeng issue has sometimes been in Grand Forks. Notably, city council leaders were offered increased security and a door with keypad entry after city council member Ken Vein was tracked to his car after a late winter meeting.
Anger over Fufeng group raises concerns and questions in Grand Forks
Other speakers on Monday evening discussed what they saw as frustrating government spending to support the arrival of the Fufeng Group. The city spends large sums on nearby infrastructure; it also provides Fufeng with significant local property tax reductions for the first 20 years of the corn mill’s life.
“I am against the annexation of my property,” said one speaker. “At the time when I started from nothing, I started from nothing. I paid for my own water pipes there, paid to drill the gas pipes there. All. No one ever gave us anything.
As part of its annexation decision, the council considered protests against annexation – a legally filed opposition to the move. If more than 25% of the owners – by area – had protested, the annexation would have been forced into mediation. Last week, the town hall said only 13% of the property area had lodged a protest.
Phil Kraemer, chairman of the Falconer Township board, spoke about his own protest to the town.
“Yes, we are not owners in the annexation area, but I think we have our skin in the game losing properties out of Falconer Township,” he said, describing the loss of income for County.
Throughout the discussion of the project, there was one particularly notable comment. Tommy Kenville, chairman of the board of the local chamber of commerce, said the chamber supports “the first phase of the development agreement process”, referring extensively to the town’s recent negotiations to explore the arrival of Fufeng. Given the deep divisions in the business world over the draft and annexation, its appearance was remarkable.
“The (Economic Development Corporation) and the city have done a great job with this process,” Kenville said. “There were many opportunities for comments and questions.”
But the mood of the crowd gathered at the meeting was decidedly against Fufeng’s arrival. Craig Spicer, one of the business owners along Highway 81, summed up the situation near the end of the meeting, feeling that he and his neighbors knew where they stood.
“Who is behind this project that you are so stubborn that you can’t see the facts of the people who voted for you?” he asked the council. “I really don’t understand how you think you’re going to keep your job in the next election.”