FARGO — Walking up the stairs of the downtown library, Mike Williams said residents have visited the building more than 500,000 times a year.
That’s more than visit the Fargodome, he pointed out.
As a citizen activist, Williams had led petitions to limit the taxing authority of local governments. But as a freshman city commissioner, he urged voters to pass a short-term sales tax to build the library.
One of his petitions had made it harder to levy sales taxes by requiring a 60-percent supermajority vote instead of a 50-percent majority vote, yet the library tax still passed with 61 percent.
“It shows people are willing to tax themselves for good projects,” he said in an interview Thursday June 30.
It’s typical of Williams’ unconventional political path that’s taken him through three consecutive terms on the commission, the maximum allowed by city term limits. June 27 was his last night as commissioner, at least for now.
“Mike is very principled,” said John Strand, a Williams ally who will replace him as a new commissioner, with his first meeting set for Tuesday, July 5. “He’s willing to represent the people to the point where he used to always say he might not be re-electable again because of his convictions.”
Williams first went to City Hall to fight it.
That was in 1995 when he began work on the sales tax supermajority requirement. In 2000, he fought the city’s plan to add an ice arena to the Fargodome. In 2002, he lead a drive to limit the school district’s property tax authority, an initiative also involving Strand. Williams succeeded in all three. Later he and Strand would succeed in getting more state funding for schools, which allowed the district to slash its property tax rate.
In the meantime, he ran repeatedly for a seat on the City Commission, winning on his third try in 2004. Once he was inside, Williams had a way of getting his way, persuading voters to support a stricter smoking ban, passing a law barring the city from using eminent domain for economic development, starting a planning process that emphasizes higher density growth, expanding the landfill’s methane mining efforts and, most recently, building a new parking ramp.
“Mike is like yeast sometimes,” said Mayor Tim Mahoney, who’s served on the commission with Williams since 2005 and who named Williams deputy mayor in 2015. “You put yeast in bread, and it helps things to rise. Him pushing, sometimes that helped us to move on to further spots.”
“Kindness” is his secret, Williams said. “Even when people don’t agree with you when they come up with another idea they find that ‘Jeez, he was OK even when he didn’t agree with me. I can work with this guy.'”
To those that know him, like Mahoney and Strand, the secret is his encyclopedic knowledge of municipal issues. A conversation with him can become a list of facts and figures delivered one after another and branching into various related issues.
“He doesn’t stand up and pontificate but he will share his best thinking in a real solid, grounded fashion, in an orderly, logical fashion,” Strand said. “It’s not shooting from the hip emotional stuff with him.”
Rabble rouser to insider
Looking out the library window at the mounds of dirt and noisy construction machinery, Williams pointed to the landing on the new floodwall that would allow pedestrian access to the river by way of a walk bridge. He noted the site of the new City Hall to the northeast and the site of what he hopes will be a mixed residential-commercial building to the east.
Williams advocated for all of these things, and he expressed pride in how everything was coming together. It’s almost a contrast to his earlier image as a anti-City Hall agitator, something Mahoney noticed.
“Early in his career he was probably more of a rabble rouser,” the mayor said. “Later in his career he was more of trying to get things done.”
Asked if he saw things differently at all when he became a City Hall insider, Williams conceded he was more willing to support tax incentives for economic development but only those that are targeted and don’t last long.
Even when he works on projects that will cost the city more money, such as downtown parking ramps or hybrid buses, it’s with an eye towards saving money in the long run.
The ramps would be built on land that is mostly or entirely used for surface parking, generating little property tax for the city, Williams said. With the ramps, which will be wrapped by new mixed-use buildings, the city will collect more revenue and bring more residents downtown. Bringing more people downtown also is a way to fight sprawl, which costs more to provide services such as snow plowing but bring in less revenue.
The hybrid buses are more efficient and have saved money in the long run, Williams said. They’ve got double the mileage with less emission, he said.
A return to City Hall?
Reviewing his political career so far, Williams indicated he’s not ready to end his advocacy days yet.
His term on the Parking Commission won’t expire for two years, and he said he’ll use that time to work on an improved downtown plan.
And after that, who knows.
“I’m keeping my options open,” he said. “Like I said, I was an activist before I was elected That’s one of the reasons I love Fargo is you can be as engaged as you want to be.”
That could include another run for City Commission in two years as allowed by city law. “That’s a good possibility. We’ll see,” he said.
Strand said he expects Williams will find something to do. “Nature detests gaps. If there’s a gap with Mike’s name on it and calls him he’ll fill it.”