After clean sweep, county starts fresh
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- Either the recall election that ousted all five Griggs County commissioners Tuesday was a sign of the effectiveness of an informed public in the democratic process or a product of misinformation pushed by a vocal few.
It just depends on who is asked.
More than 1,000 county residents voted to completely replace the County Commission, which pushed a new $3.5 million courthouse construction project through despite three votes against it.
For at least one of the incumbents, the project represented a sacrifice, and the price was the seats of the former commissioners.
"We realized going in it wasn't going to be popular, and we thought we might be voted out," said Keith Monson, outgoing District 4 commissioner. "I think the people have spoken. I don't know if (the recall election) was based so much on what we did as much as false information in the last few months as a result of (the challengers') campaign."
But John Wakefield, whose 132 votes were enough to take District 1 Commissioner Ron Halvorson's seat, said it was a lack of information that prompted the upheaval.
"Until now, we've been on the outside of this thing," Wakefield said. "The first step is going to be to call for an independent audit. We need to know exactly what's taken place."
Dale Pederson, who will replace District 5 Commissioner Robert Johnson, said the former commissioners rammed the courthouse project past voters to secure a $1 million federal grant for the project. Monson appeared to agree with that assessment, saying there would have been an "extreme financial impact" on the county had the commissioners not secured the grant.
Wakefield called that decision "political suicide."
"The citizens knew if they voted against the project they'd be losing the grant money," Wakefield said. "Voters clearly understood that and they said no."
The commission was found to be in violation of open meetings and records law after they failed to provide public notice of a Feb. 12 community forum on the project, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem found. That was one of two violations of the law by the commission and among 13 violations statewide this year, according to Wakefield.
"This is a victory not just for the citizens of the county, but for the system of government we live under," he said.
North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger said he couldn't remember an entire governing body being recalled during his 21 years in office.
Jaeger said the state averages several recall elections each year for city, county and school board positions, but he doesn't remember an across-the-board recall. He's not aware of any before he took over, either.
He said one of his first projects after becoming secretary of state was to set rules for recall elections, which were becoming increasingly popular.
"We needed to get the same rulebook for everyone," he said.
Jaeger said recall elections require an opponent; it can't be an up-or-down vote on an incumbent.
"You can't vote 'yes' or 'no' on wanting someone," he said. "You have to vote for either John or Joe."
If the county's canvassing board approves the election results in Griggs County on Monday morning, the five new commissioners will be sworn in at 7 p.m. The swearing in will be followed by a reorganizational meeting with the election of officers, according to District 4 winner Troy Olson.
Monson, who was on the commission for less than a year, said the new commissioners will have a "pretty stiff learning curve.
"After 10 months I was finally starting to get a full grasp on how everything works and functions," he said. "It's going to be tough for (the new commissioners). That's why you have staggered terms, so you don't lose institutional memory."
Wakefield, who has filed several complaints with the Attorney General's Office regarding the commission's actions, said the recall was an affirmation that voters hadn't lost faith in the value of their vote.
"I don't know how many people I talked to in this campaign who said 'I'm not even going to vote anymore because it doesn't count,' " he said. "As we move forward the emphasis is going to be on mitigating any damage that's been done, but more so, not doing any more damage.
"This was a big deal, and (the former commissioners) make light of it now, but the core issue was they failed the county residents."