GRAND FORKS -- The LED lights on the Sorlie Memorial Bridge change color about once or twice a month each year: to orange around Halloween, to red around Valentines Day, to green during the University of North Dakota's homecoming and so on.
But earlier this year, they also were a surprising source of local political friction when some of the officials who manage the lights thwarted a pair of requests to change their color to mark Pride weekend and Indigenous Peoples Day in the city.
“Symbols matter,” said Katie Dachtler, a Grand Forks City Council member who helped organize both holidays. She and other organizers see the lights on the bridge, which straddles the Red River and connects the Grand Cities’ downtowns, as a way to signal welcoming and acceptance for populations of people who have historically been excluded.
The lights are on a system that changes them automatically in accordance with an annual schedule. Deviating from that schedule isn’t as simple as flipping a switch or fiddling with an app: a city public works staffer needs to head to a control cabinet near the bridge to alter the lights one at a time, balancing red, blue, and green values to produce whatever color is called for. New colors can require a team from the Twin Cities to head up to correctly program the system.
But a lot of the resistance to changing the Sorlie Bridge’s colors is philosophical as well as logistical. Wary of turning the historic bridge into a “billboard” or a gaudy decoration, and of being forced to choose lights for one holiday over another, a committee of area officials that manages the lights often denies requests to change their colors for an event or holiday unless the circumstances are special, such as a Fighting Hawks hockey championship, or extraordinary.
“Like the death of a president,” said Mark Walker, Grand Forks’ assistant city engineer. “But now, what it's ... trying to be used for is to get approval to use the Sorlie for recognition of annual events, which is not what it was intended to be.”
The committee maintains an agreed-upon lighting schedule and considers proposals to temporarily ignore it to display colors chosen by residents who fill out a formal request. Pink, blue, and white – the colors of the transgender pride flag – would have marked Pride weekend in August, for instance, instead of the white lights that would normally shine over the Red River then.
If even a single committee member objects to a lighting request, the request is denied. The committee is comprised of representatives from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks’ city governments, the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, plus state transportation and historic preservation administrators from North Dakota and Minnesota.
For apparent expediency to recognize a momentous event, votes to temporarily change the Sorlie lights are meant to be conducted via email in a four-hour window. Not voting is, in effect, counted as a “yes” vote.
The lighting schedule itself can be changed at the committee’s yearly meeting, which is another avenue by which to recognize a given holiday.
What’s the difference?
City records indicate that most temporary lighting requests are rejected but, despite the committee’s intent at the outset, its members have nonetheless approved a handful of requests to change the lights for other events or holidays, such as green for Light the Town Green Week in December 2020 or purple for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January of this year, a change that was later added to the bridge’s formal lighting schedule about a month later.
One of the most persistent “no” votes on the committee, at least according to a slew of emails obtained via a records request for this story, has been East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander, who often wonders about the significance of an occasion when considering temporary lighting changes to commemorate it.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is “established and of universal importance,” he wrote to committee members in January 2021. A COVID-19 observance pitched alongside that holiday in January is also of universal importance but has not been “established.” He voted against it.
In an interview, Gander also noted that the King holiday is a national one – “that, by itself, carves out a special position,” he said – and he said it’s an important way to remember King’s civil rights legacy.
Gander said he didn’t remember whether he voted in favor of the King holiday or whether he simply didn’t vote. It’s the same thing, procedurally, but public records indicate that many committee members nonetheless express their approval of a given request. Gander said his feelings were the same, regardless.
On the Pride celebration lights, Gander said he is willing to fight for people's right to live according to their sexual orientation and identity, but he drew the line at, as he put it, using public infrastructure “in support of or promotion of one lifestyle choice or another.” That echoes the justification he put forth to other committee members in emails sent in July.
And Gander is reluctant to change the lights for Indigenous Peoples Day at the expense of Columbus Day, a holiday on the same day that recognizes the Genoese explorer. The mayor considers Columbus Day to be an important marker of American history, which means changing the Sorlie lights to recognize both simultaneously or not changing the lights at all.
“I actually would rather Indigenous Peoples Day would be another day because then we could do it right,” Gander said. “Wouldn’t be any distraction or pull your attention away for Columbus Day. But if they really want to have it on that day then, to me, it’s important that we observe those two side by side.”
And those reasons have rankled some Pride and Indigenous Peoples Day organizers, Dachtler foremost among them.
“I don’t agree with his remarks that you can choose to be gay,” she said of Gander’s argument against the Pride lights. “I think that if you’re going to be a welcoming community and say that you support all of your community members, you can’t decide that, because of something they cannot choose, that is a part of their identity, do you all of a sudden get to decide that you can’t publicly support them?”
The process for approving changes to the lights, in Dachtler’s estimation, has also been applied unevenly. In emails with city staff and in a phone interview, she noted with frustration that the King holiday was approved via the same process by which Pride and Indigenous Peoples Day were rejected. She was part of the push for the lighting change for all three.
City correspondence shows that the change for the MLK holiday was brought forward on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, and approved the same day. The closest thing to opposition to be found in emails city staff provided in the records request is a city electrician who'd have to change the lights worrying about the short turnaround before Martin Luther King Jr. Day itself, which was on the following Monday.
"It was an instantaneous, easy yes," Dachtler. "I did the same thing I did before."
That same cache of emails handed over by the city seem to indicate that the Indigenous Peoples Day and Pride requests weren't handled according to protocol spelled out in the committee’s organizing document, an eight-page agreement that was signed in late 2017.
The request for Pride and Indigenous Peoples Day lighting were formally presented to the committee at large on June 29, according to city correspondence. But city staff were still asking committee members for final decisions on each in mid-July, despite language in the agreement that calls for only a four-hour review period. Beyond that, Gander’s opposition to both requests on the day they were made would seemingly torpedo each because the agreement stipulates that the Sorlie lights may be changed “provided no unresolved objection from team members remains after the four-hour review period.”
Walker, the assistant city engineer, said Gander's hope to have the bridge lit to simultaneously acknowledge Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day caused the longer-than-stipulated decision period because city and committee staff hadn't heard if such an arrangement was possible or if it was OK with the events' requestors.
In an email to other city and state administrators after Dachtler began pressing city staff for answers on the denied temporary lighting changes, Grand Forks City Engineer Al Grasser proposed the committee come up with a checklist to evaluate requests that would act as an application form, as well.
“I think we need to fix a problem and create some political cover for what is becoming too routine of a process of 11th hour requests, basically technically unfeasible, and overlapping lighting requests,” Grasser wrote.
Three days later, Paul Demers, a North Dakota state archaeologist on the committee who had already worried that it was getting too large and too involved in local politics, told city staff he had asked to be removed from it.
He wanted off the committee, “since this position is becoming increasingly political,” Demers wrote in a July 19 email. “I do not have the authority or desire to wade into Grand Forks area affairs.”