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​Petition Dies, Business Owner Moves On

News | March 29th, 2012

The petition is dead, but Moorhead’s nine-month saga over what police and prosecutors deem drug paraphernalia is not over yet.

At its Feb.13 meeting, the city council rejected a petition with nearly 3,000 signatures that would have forced leaders to repeal the divisive ordinance or send the question to voters in the 2013 city election. After a review process threw out about 1,800 names for a variety of reasons – most for not being registered voters – petitioners had 30 days to file “corrected signature papers” and “otherwise correct the petition,” according to the city charter. That didn’t happen by this month’s deadline. Now the law’s opponents are refocusing their efforts.

Of Moorhead’s five shops that once sold bongs, glass pipes, grinders and other products now considered illegal, two – Mellow Mood’s Main Avenue branch and Mother’s Music a few doors down – removed prohibited items and stayed open.

The smaller Mellow Mood shop east of downtown now sits empty, with its inventory moved to other locations. A sign on the Pyromaniacs storefront says it is closed for remodeling. Meanwhile, Discontent owner Tom Tepley said he plans to reopen “some sort of tobacco shop” in weeks, possibly prompting enforcement of the ordinance for the first time.

“I have a lot of different options and people might be surprised at what I’m going to do,” Tepley said earlier this month.

His shuttered store along Main Avenue is gutted for now. Tepley said the front half will turn into Just 4 You shirts, a customized screen-printing business, while a separate tobacco shop will fill the back half. Already installed: a ventilation system to remove smoke (under certain conditions, indoor tobacco “sampling” is allowed under state law). Soon, Tepley said, the colorful exterior will get a new paint job.

“The concept of Discontent is gone,” he said. “All that is gone.”

In the past six weeks, the 35-year veteran of Moorhead business waged simultaneous legal and political battles against the ordinance – and lost them both.

On Feb. 10, three days before the council rejected the petition, Tepley and three employees filed a complaint against the city of Moorhead in Minneapolis federal court. Judge Michael J. Davis refused to block the law “because the Court concludes that Plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim and are unable to show irreparable harm …”

Tepley said he’s had it with judges: “Somebody’s going to have to take this in front of a jury.”

Back in Moorhead, despite competent organization, Discontent employees and volunteers who tried to track down petition signers and fix the document said they found the effort futile without any contact information besides addresses – and with limited manpower.

“It was frustrating as hell,” said John Hallman, a Minnesota State University Moorhead political science student who spent a few hours over the last month trying to correct the petition. “After the second time I went out, I got discouraged.”

A representative from Mellow Mood, the shop that collected a majority of the signatures but failed to register most who signed, declined to comment, saying in a text message that “Tom (Tepley) has taken over the petition stuff, I would direct any questions to him.”

City clerk Jill Wenger’s petition report to the council indicated 13 people – five city staff and eight police volunteers spent 191 hours over six days reviewing the petition. To ensure objectivity, Wenger said, two people looked at each signature and followed strict instructions. Petition organizers cried foul over the use of police volunteers for this work because the police department had helped craft the ordinance. At the Feb. 13 council meeting, the city manager defended the move as a way to avoid hiring election judges at the public expense, while several city council members offered sweeping endorsements of the volunteers’ integrity.

In their quest to remedy the petition, volunteers located some people who had initially signed but refused to correct the document because they knew police volunteers were involved in conducting the review and feared retribution, said a Discontent employee who asked not to be named out of concern he will become a law enforcement target.

A High Plains Reader analysis of the petition review database, received through a Data Practices Act request, found dozens of names listed as illegible that could have reasonably have been considered legible. Some addresses on the petition document were entered improperly into the electronic document. The number of apparent flaws does not appear be high enough to have spoiled the petition’s validity.

City manager Michael Redlinger said Monday the petition review process was thorough and fair. Volunteers and staff, he said, strived to validate as many signatures as possible, giving the “benefit of the doubt” to signers.

“Great care was taken to document clear procedures prior to the petition review and to eliminate mistakes,” reiterated Wenger, the city clerk.

Hallman, the MSUM student, said he’s disappointed most of the hundreds of college students who signed didn’t count because they either weren’t registered or were registered in a different jurisdiction.

“This is a college community,” Hallman said. “These laws affect them as well. They should have some sort of say in it.”

Council member Mark Altenberg, who represents the MSUM campus and was one of three members to vote against the law, has expressed dismay at the number of young signers who were rejected. But he also praised petition organizers for registering more than 1,000 people to vote.

“Direct democracy is a wonderful thing,” Altenberg said. “If you do it right you can change the government, but you’ve got to take your time and do it right.”

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