When the people of Bismarck voted in the June 12, 2018 election, the message was clear that they were looking for new leadership on the City Commission. Steve Bakken’s defeat of the unpopular Mike Seminary — by over 20 percentage points — was evidence of this in the mayor’s race. Greg Zenker joined Bakken as a newcomer to the city’s governing body.
With Steve Marquardt already on the commission, the expectation of some voters was that there would now be a 3-2 majority that represented something quite different from their colleagues Nancy Guy and Shawn Oban— who are considered far more liberal in their approach to governing.
One issue that residents of Bismarck might be very interested in is set to be heard at today’s City Commission Meeting. However the vote pans out will tell us a lot about who’s running North Dakota’s capital city. According to item #3C-1 on the agenda, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC has applied for a $200,000 grant from the city’s “Vision Fund“. The purpose of the grant? As you can see in this document from City Administrator Keith Hunke — which includes the Chamber’s application — the grant would be used for operating expenses.
Now, just in case you’re not familiar with the Chamber, let’s take a look at who they are. The Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC came into being as a result of a merger last October between the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce and the Bismarck-Mandan Development Association. According to their own website:
“With more than 1,300 members, the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC is one of the most powerful business organizations in the state.
“From our involvement on behalf of our members in government affairs to providing networking and educational opportunities, the Chamber EDC exists to serve the interests and needs of our members.”
If that’s kind of vague for you, then perhaps this will help. Again, according to the document from Bismarck’s City Administrator, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC is a 501(c)(6). You’re likely familiar with 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, but a 501(c)(6) is a tad different. According to the website for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), this nonprofit organization:
“… will not be disqualified merely because it engages in some political activity. In addition, the organization may engage in lobbying that is germane to accomplishing its exempt purpose without jeopardizing its exemption.”
In short, they can participate in purpose-related lobbying activities. And that’s exactly what the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC does. In fact, they explain this in their application for the $200,000 from the Vision Fund. And not only do they explain it, but it’s the first thing they list as one of the “primary activities in which the organization will engage.” It’s found under “Advocacy” on page 10:
“At the local level, the Chamber EDC has engaged in efforts to educate and inform its membership on issues such as school bond referendums and sales tax measures. At the state level, the Chamber is engaged in lobbying activities in support of its Legislative Agenda.” (Emphasis Added)
This is a good time to remind you that North Dakota’s Corrupt Practices Act prohibits:
“… use any property belonging to or leased by, or any service which is provided to or carried on by, either directly or by contract, the state or any agency, department, bureau, board, commission, or political subdivision thereof, for any political purpose.” (Emphasis Added)
And just to be clear, “property” is defined as:
“… motor vehicles, telephones, typewriters, adding machines, postage or postage meters, funds of money, and buildings.” (Emphasis Added)
So, if the Bismarck City Commission approves of the request for the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC to receive their $200,000 grant for operating expenses, is it possible they could end up violating North Dakota law? After all, if the commission is prohibited from using “funds of money” to promote a position on things like — oh, let’s say school bond referendums and sales tax measures — then why should they be able to grant money to an organization who might just do it for them? How is that any different?
Furthermore, what if the “Legislative Agenda” mentioned by the Chamber consists of positions that hundreds or thousands of residents in Bismarck oppose? For example, they support “economic development programs and incentives” like those prevalent under former mayor Mike Seminary.
But let’s suppose this grant is allowable under the law. After all, this isn’t the first time the Chamber has asked for city dollars. In fact, their own application shows over $3.2 million in requests since 2009. Yet, does that make it right? Let’s not forget that when it comes to government “funds of money” — in this case, city dollars — these are taxpayer dollars.
Oh, and by the way, just in case you haven’t looked already, guess who the City of Bismarck refers you to if you want to understand exactly what the Vision Fund is for? You know, the fund where the $200,000 will come from. Yep, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC. I don’t know if they manage the fund, but they’re the obvious go-to source if you want to learn more about it. You simply can’t make this stuff up.
I want to be very clear. I have no problem with the existence of the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC— none at all. I don’t agree with all that they stand for, but they have as much a right to exist as any other organization. Having said that, I don’t believe the City of Bismarck should be abdicating to or funding them. We’ll find out at today’s meeting if the City Commission agrees.
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