Every other Monday night, Garylle Stewart is a fixture at the front of the Fargo City Commission room, faithfully seated alongside the city’s five elected leaders.
The longtime city attorney has seen the commission through hundreds of issues, ranging from annexation to the city’s ever-changing liquor laws.
But despite his high-profile position, those who make it possible for Stewart to do his job — taxpayers — know very little about the man who has helped keep the city out of legal trouble the past 36 years.
In meetings, Stewart rarely speaks unless spoken to and never injects his personal opinion. He sits quietly off to the side, with a heap of papers in front of him and a dose of legal advice at the tip of his tongue.
Fargo has relied on Stewart’s law firm — Solberg, Stewart & Miller — as its legal counsel since 1966.
Stewart is the lead city attorney, and other members of the firm are assistant city attorneys. For years, Wayne Solberg, law firm founder, was the lead city attorney and Stewart his backup.
But when Solberg retired in 1997, Stewart took over.
The city leans on the firm for purposes such as advising the City Commission and its advisory boards about legal issues, reviewing or writing contracts and leases, writing city ordinances and handling all litigation for the city, including Municipal Court trials, District Court trials and appeals to the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Last year, the city paid the firm $320,000, but that will be increased to $335,000 this year. Because the law firm also handles numerous other private cases, the money from the city is combined and dispersed along with the firm’s other income.
About five years ago, the city considered contracting out the city attorney services, which potentially could have yielded a lower yearly cost.
But Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness said he and other city officials decided against it for fear of losing the historical perspective Stewart brings to the job.
“We thought, ‘How are we ever going to replicate that?’” Furness said. “We would lose all that memory.”
Stewart, now a senior partner, joined the firm’s ranks in July 1968 shortly after it was established. Before that, he was a clerk at the North Dakota Supreme Court for a year.
When Stewart came to Fargo, Solberg and former law partner Scott Anderson had been city attorneys for a short time. Solberg recalls what a busy time this was, saying he and Anderson knew right away they needed another attorney to help out.
“Gary was the guy,” he said. “You had to have somebody acceptable to Herschel Lashkowitz (Fargo’s mayor from 1954 to 1974).”
When reminiscing about these early days, it doesn’t take Stewart or Solberg more than a few minutes to start trading tales about “the Lashkowitz years.”
A key figure in Fargo history, Lashkowitz had a reputation for being a little eccentric and a lot feisty. The reason Solberg’s law firm got the job was because Lashkowitz couldn’t get along with the city attorney at the time, E.T. Conmy.
Shortly before his demise, Conmy told Lashkowitz he was “sowing the seeds of dictatorship.”
“I remember hearing the story of one traveling salesman who used to stay in Fargo on Monday nights so he could go to the commission meetings,” Stewart recalls. “It was better than a floor show. You never knew what was going to happen.”
Even the soft-spoken Gib Bromenschenkel, the longest-serving city commissioner who worked alongside Stewart for 34 years, said the most difficult time for the city attorney had to be the first four years when Lashkowitz still reigned over Fargo.
Stewart said he’ll never forget the time he and Solberg spent an afternoon hiding from Lashkowitz, who was on a mission to influence the vote for a commission meeting that night. Stewart said he thinks it was when Lashkowitz was pushing to get a certain staff director in place.
He and Solberg just wanted to stay out of his path.
“That was a wild day,” Stewart says, laughing himself into a hefty cough.
Stewart’s firm survived those years, he says because they didn’t take sides and stayed out of the politics.
But Solberg said most people have no problem getting along with Stewart.
“His personality is pretty laid-back,” Solberg said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a hard word between us.”
Stewart said he enjoys the challenges that come with being the person the city looks to for legal advice.
He has no regrets.
“You can’t afford ’em,” Stewart said. “I just take the cards as they’re dealt.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mary Jo Almquist at (701) 241-5531