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After years of contentious politics, Valley City elects referee as mayor

VALLEY CITY, N.D.--For the past few years, local politics here has been unusually rough-and-tumble for a small North Dakota city. Accusations, investigations and resignations have been routine.

Valley City Mayor Dave Carlsrud is adjusting to life in public service after spending many years as a sports ref and former NDHSAA Assistant Director.Dave Wallis / The Forum
Valley City Mayor Dave Carlsrud is adjusting to life in public service after spending many years as a sports ref and former NDHSAA assistant director. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

VALLEY CITY, N.D.-For the past few years, local politics here has been unusually rough-and-tumble for a small North Dakota city. Accusations, investigations and resignations have been routine.

So it seems appropriate that Valley City voters, in a city election in mid-September, elected a new mayor who's used to settling disputes: Dave Carlsrud, a former wrestling, basketball and football referee.

Carlsrud, who for years dealt with issues affecting the state's referees while working for the North Dakota High School Activities Association, has been in the mayor's office five weeks now-dealing with the issues of the town that's become the place he calls home.

The silver-haired 70-year-old is rail thin, tanned and looks like he could easily run a marathon.

Carlsrud said he wasn't looking to become the town's political referee.

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But after years of sometimes bruising political sniping, people were looking to him to fill out the final two years of former Mayor Bob Werkhoven's term. Werkhoven resigned the job earlier this year, citing health reasons.

"At first, I had no interest. Some people had talked to me about running. There were three or four other people I thought would be better qualified for the job. And all of them had better reasons than I did for not running," Carlsrud said. "My wife and I visited and prayed on it some, and just decided. I'm choosing to live here. And my previous job had me on the road often. So I hadn't served. So If we're going to stay here, I figured I owed to Valley City to try. So we're going to give it a good effort."

So far, so good.

Carlsrud said he believes in "addressing issues with respect on the phone or on the street," to keep those disputes from making it to the City Commission level, "or flare up in any way."

As president of the commission, he also sticks with Roberts Rules of Order to encourage civil exchanges, he said.

"We've done preventive officiating, but we haven't had to bring the hammer down," Carlsrud joked, adding, "We don't want the ants to become alligators."

Having been a referee will be a plus, Carlsrud said.

"Three things in officiating that can be related to life in general, whether we're at home or in our jobs.

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"One, you respond to reasonable questions in a reasonable amount of time. You don't respond to statements. That puts us on the defensive right away. And then, if I don't know, shut up, because silence can't be quoted," and then it's time to research the problem, Carlsrud said.

His other guidepost is James 1:19 from the Bible.

"Be quick to listen, be slow to speak and slow to anger," Carlsrud said. "You can go a long ways with those."

If the recent past is any indication, Carlsrud will need those skills and more to settle the political scene in the city of about 6,700 nestled in a Sheyenne River valley an hour west of Fargo.

It's been a tough five years in Valley City.

In late September 2011, former Police Chief Dean Ross retired after being accused of misconduct and misappropriation of funds. Those allegations were dropped with his resignation, and he was never charged with any crimes.

• In October 2011, City Administrator Jon Cameron resigned. Cameron and his supporters had won a bruising battle, with voters agreeing to keep the city administrator position. However, just two days after the city vote, Cameron said he took a job in the southern United States.

• Ross then ran for mayor in a special election to recall Werkhoven. Werkhoven and City Commissioner Ken Evenson were targeted for recall after Ross was suspended as police chief. Werkhoven handily won in the January 2012 election, but Evenson was unseated.

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• In the 2014 mayoral campaign, city commissioner and former Mayor Mary Lee Nielson supported Jeff Edwards in his challenge to Werkhoven. In an ad, Nielson said Edwards "will work with everyone without using profanity or making sexist or racist remarks," implying that Werkhoven was racist and sexist. Werkhoven again won handily.

• In 2015, a group of residents pushed to have the police department disbanded after Chief Fred Thompson drew a gun on a resident playing with airsoft guns on his front lawn with his children. The residents, who included local business owner Robert Drake, called for policing to be taken over by the Barnes County Sheriff's Department. That effort was later abandoned.

• In January of this year, City Administrator David Schelkoph, City Attorney Russell Myhre, Thompson and police Lt. David Swenson said they were victims of a smear campaign accusing them of sexual and other misconduct. Drake made the allegations in a December 2015 letter to the city. They included that Thompson was engaged in unspecified sexual harassment; that Swenson had sex while on duty, refused a lie detector in a forgery investigation, and conspired with a woman to have her husband arrested for DWI and drugs; that Myhre bought alcohol for minors; and that Schelkopf illegally have a 1 percent raise to city employees, incorrectly classified homes purchased for flood protection, and gave the city bad advice about frequencies for smart meters.

• Allegations of wage fraud against Swenson were called unfounded in June after an internal investigation. But Swenson resigned in July after he was accused of having sex with a woman in a squad car and in the police department's evidence room.

Carlsrud said it's time to focus on the good things happening in the city. The first phase of flood protection from the Sheyenne River is now done, a beautiful new wellness center stands near the Valley City State University campus, new apartments are going up, the National Guard maintenance facility in the city's industrial park is well underway and the PetroServe travel plaza is taking shape near Interstate 94.

Drake said he wishes Carlsrud the best of luck and hopes he can "restore the faith in good government we used to have here." But the longtime City Hall critic will reserve judgment until he sees what the new mayor does in coming months.

"I don't know what to think of him yet," Drake said. "There's going to be some things dropped on his plate. We've got some bad apples in town and it will be up to him to weed them out.

Carlsrud is a regular at the coffee shops around town. Given the number of coffee stops he makes during a day-three by mid-morning Friday, Nov. 4-he may qualify as the most-caffeinated mayor in the state. But it also keeps him pretty well plugged-in to happenings in town.

He's also starting a monthly 5:30 p.m. second Wednesday coffee meeting with the mayor.

"Start a pot of coffee and away we go. That's a place for people to bring issues," Carlsrud said.

At Dutton's Parlor, a block west of City Hall, the regular 10 a.m. group of coffee drinkers gives Carlsrud their thumbs up.

Lance Jensen said Carlsrud has been a neighbor for the last 11 years.

"When he ran, it seemed like the right thing ... to bring things together," Jensen said.

"As long as he's been in there, we haven't had any uprisings," Tim Kadrmas said. "I've always thought of him being fair and honestly, quite friendly, easy to approach."

Carlsrud said he'd also like to detoxify local politics, and make service to the city something others will once again consider without trepidation.

"Our whole population is passionate about Valley City," Carlsrud said. "One of our challenges is to direct those passions in the right direction. We don't all have to be friends, but we all have to get along well enough to move along."

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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