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With testimony wrapped, Arbor Park ruling could come next week

After a second day of witness' testimony, a lawsuit on Arbor Park moves from the courtroom to chambers, with written arguments due to District Judge Steven Marquart by 5 p.m. on Aug. 16. The move brings the case closer to a resolution that could come before the end of next week.

The second day of testimony saw final questions for Howard Swanson, the city attorney who had previously taken the stand, as well as Debbie Nelson—the top county election official—and a resident who described difficulty voting on election day.

Swanson's and Nelson's testimony dealt with election law and some of the issues at the heart of the case, which seeks to void the June 20 referendum on Arbor Park's future—that rejected a ballot measure that might have preserved it. The city was freed to move ahead with pending plans to sell the site to a developer, and the park is now being cleared ahead of construction of a five-story condominium tower.

The suit contends two absentee ballots were improperly disqualified by the city, raising questions about the broader electoral process. It also claims the city exceeded its authority when it held all June 20 voting in one location at the Alerus Center.

During testimony on Thursday, Swanson said election costs, available workers and open polling sites were all factors in the city's polling site decision. Nelson, whose county department assisted with the election, said the number of precincts in the county have dwindled over the years, and that it's become harder and harder to find election workers.

"Sometimes it's the day of, and sometimes it's my mother who fills in," she said. "It's always been a struggle. I did have one precinct one morning ... one of my workers went out for a smoke and never came back."

Nelson testified that there was nothing amiss with the process by which the two absentee ballots were disqualified.

Henry Howe, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, built much of his questioning around the city's motivations for holding one polling location. He asked Swanson if the city was pleased at the prospect of a special election. He also established that an election with one polling site in the city was unprecedented for a city matter.

Howe pressed Nelson, too, asking that if any elections had to be canceled because of lack of polling workers, which Nelson said was not the case—despite the regular inconvenience of finding enough help.

Attorneys also cross-examined Susan Mibeck, a resident of the Near Southside, who said she did not vote because of the inconvenience of traveling to the Alerus Center. Under questioning from city attorney Ron Fischer, she said the thought of voting absentee had not occurred to her, and that she had only learned voting would be at the Alerus Center when she researched the matter the evening before the election.

"Everything this city did in this case was legal," Fischer said in an interview after court was adjourned. "You heard plenty of testimony from Mr. Swanson and Ms. Nelson ... that this is the direction things are moving, the direction of going to less polling locations and, in many cases, one polling location."

And in this case, Fischer said, motivations are legally irrelevant.

"It all comes down to just money," Howe said. "But I'll tell you—there's going to be 1 percent or less of the people who go the park, and have gone to the park over the years, that are ever going to see the inside of some townhouse on the fifth floor overlooking Fourth Street."

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