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A lesson in ‘take your turn’ politics; Elected posts are more of an act of duty in some small North Dakota cities

GARDNER, N.D. — The only person to vote for Todd Kalm was Todd Kalm.

The Fargo Jet Center line technician decided he’d like to be mayor of Gardner the night before Tuesday’s election. He voted for himself as a write-in candidate the next day.

“My campaign budget was zero dollars,” Kalm said. “When I say it was the last minute, I meant that literally.”

In a town of about 75 people, Kalm got one vote out of a total of nine. He tied with six other people for second place. And he’ll probably be the next mayor of Gardner.

Compared with this year’s lively mayoral election in Fargo and the high-stakes, big-money ways that politics plays out on the national stage, it’s beyond an understatement to note that races for political office in small towns are subdued.

In Cass County, some newly elected small-town mayors and council members won with just a handful of votes. They say they’re simply taking their turn at the helm of their cities before passing the mantle to someone else.

And small towns aren’t unique to Cass County, of course. About three-fourths of cities across the state have populations of less than 500, said Kim Nunberg, president of the North Dakota League of Cities.

While small city governments aren’t as compartmentalized as larger ones, Nunberg said the motivation for taking on a leadership role is, from her perspective, largely the same.

“They’re running certainly because they want to be a part of their city,” she said, “Ultimately, people want to give back and share their knowledge and expertise when they can.”

Sorting out the results

Kalm said he’s excited to start his work as mayor.

“I think that I’m going to get to know the people in town on a different level,” he said.

But he’ll first have to make sure he’s the only one interested in taking the post. The man who officially won the election —with two votes — frequently travels for work and said he’ll decline the position.

Kalm, who currently sits on the city council, said he suspects many of the other one-vote write-in candidates don’t actually know someone supported them in the race.

“I have a feeling they’ll be overjoyed that I’m taking it,” he said.

Whether Kalm will take over is still up in the air, said current Gardner mayor Ruth Schepp. But she and two of the other city council members support him.

The mayor of Gardner, which is about 25 miles north of Fargo just off Interstate 29, fields requests for building permits and serves as the face of the town, among other duties.

“It’s a little bit of everything, because we’re so small,” Kalm said.

He estimated the job requires 30 to 40 hours of work every month.

Kalm said he’d like to find a way to raise revenue for the city without increasing taxes — in a town of roughly 30 households, it’s hard to spread the cost of new projects.

The dynasty rolls on

In Amenia, about eight miles north of Casselton, the Stansbery dynasty continues.

After watching his wife Dana preside over the city for four years — and occasionally pitching in — Bill Stansbery will soon take the reins.

Stansbery captured all 10 of the votes in Amenia’s mayoral contest. The couple lives in the town of less than 100 people with their 14-month-old daughter.

“My wife never actually ran for mayor,” Stansbery said. “She got written in, and she didn’t really want to do it.”

Dana Stansbery remembers the story differently. After vocally protesting a local project, she found herself elected to head the town — something she was okay with, she said.

The job has been a fun ride for Dana Stansbery. She’s done everything from keeping an eye on the local sewage lift station to writing a grant for new playground equipment.

But Stansbery, who teaches fifth grade at Central Cass Elementary, sometimes got calls in the middle of the day about problems she needed to solve, which were tough to handle with her schedule.

She was the one to suggest her husband, a longtime city council member, run for mayor.

“It’s kind of like ‘take your turn’ in a smaller town,” she said. “I wanted to be done.”

Small-town leaders sometimes have a hard time finding willing replacements. Dana Stansbery’s predecessor did, and had to serve an extra term as mayor because nobody else was interested.

“It’s a problem that we have. There just aren’t that many people there in the first place,” Bill Stansbery said. “I’m sure a couple other people on the council voted for me just because they didn’t want to do it.”

‘A group effort’

City council members in Grandin, a town of about 175 about 30 miles north of Fargo on I-29, were looking for new blood this year. Longtime resident Scott Hanson decided to put his name on the ballot.

“It was just something I wanted to do on my own,” he said.

Hanson ran in the 2012 election and lost out by just a few votes. This year, he nudged out a sitting council member by drawing nine votes to her seven.

Several small-town candidates and newly elected leaders said they consider it their civic duty to serve local government, especially when the pool of candidates is so small.

For some of them, it’s in their blood. Dana Stansbery’s father served about 20 years as a Barnes County commissioner.

A friend of the couple joked on Facebook about the “Stansbery dynasty” and asked whether their daughter Jillian planned to run for mayor in the next election.

Bill Stansbery said he’s not even sure if he’ll run next time. It depends on whether anyone else is interested in taking the job.

But both Stansberys will likely remain involved in running things in Amenia.

“In a small town like Amenia, it’s not one person doing everything,” Bill Stansbery said. “It’s truly a group effort.”