Considering pleas from state and local health officials, Governor Doug Burgum announced on Sept. 3 that Stark County would move up the state's coronavirus alert system from green (low risk) to yellow (moderate risk) following rampant increases in active positive cases. Prior to the Governor's announcement, Stark County passed a proposal to follow any guidelines recommended by the North Dakota Department of Health.

After the move from green to yellow, an announcement appeared on the Stark County website which read, “Given the Covid status of yellow limiting 10 or fewer attendees, only County employees and public news media will be allowed in the commission meeting on September 15, 2020 at 8:00 AM. To call in for the conference call please dial 701-227-7450 enter conference room #1415836.”

Speaking with The Press, Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning said the county enacted the policy in response to guidance from health officials and in keeping with the policies passed concerning public health related to the coronavirus.

“Because of the adoption of the recommendations propounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Southwestern District Health and our Emergency Services representative at a previous meeting, we have pre-adopted plans should we move up the state’s coronavirus alert system,” Henning said. “The recommendations are that at yellow, workplace meetings should be limited to 10 or fewer people in attendance who are properly socially distanced.”

Henning added, “My advice would be that we follow the policy, it’s our adopted policy and that’s what policies are for. My understanding from Southwestern District Health is that after every event or gathering we have had, including the Fourth of July parade, First on First and the Bakken BBQ, Stark County has seen a spike which has led us to yellow. Personally, I think the meetings should be broadcast live, but that would require someone in radio or television to attend our meetings. But so long as we have print media present, we meet the legal requirements of a public meeting which is that it is being broadcast to the public.”

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This county’s decision to restrict access to public meetings drew ire on social media with many noting that the commission does not currently broadcast their meetings and those seeking to join by telephone have reported difficulty in hearing — saying that, “commissioners never turn on their microphones before speaking.” Among those voicing their discontent online were a contingent of residents who expressed their belief that the move comes “too conveniently” as meeting attendance continues to grow amid ongoing controversy embroiling some elected officials and an election fast approaching.

Commissioner Carla Arthaud said she does not support the decision to eliminate citizen attendance from meetings altogether, arguing for a mirrored approach to that of the City of Dickinson which has implemented a strict social distancing policy for public meetings.

“Regarding the guidelines coming from the Governor’s office and the Southwestern District Health Unit, I’m not in favor of closing the meeting to the public. These are guidelines, they are not mandatory,” Arthaud said. “At our last meeting we adopted a proposal to follow the guidelines if we went into the yellow category, and that was with the understanding that elected officials would be notified, which I wasn’t.”

Arthaud added, “I support social distancing protocols and health considerations wholeheartedly. I just don’t support closing the meeting to the public without us broadcasting it. When I was first elected, I wanted more transparency by having our meetings broadcast with video and audio to the public, and had we implemented my proposals when first raised we would not be having this problem.”

According to the North Dakota Department of Health, the yellow (moderate risk) level indicates heightened exposure risk and that transmission is controlled in these areas. Under yellow, cases are reported but contained by rapid testing and robust contact tracing with moderate social distancing and precautions recommended, but not mandated. These practices include the recommendation for maintaining 6-feet distancing, avoid shaking hands, working from home when possible, reconsidering unnecessary travel to and from the area and more.

Stark County Commission meetings are held in the Stark County Courthouse in the commission room, which seats approximately 40 people. Following social distancing guidelines, the meetings would permit approximately 15 to 20 people to attend.

Bernie Marsh, who is running against incumbent Pete Kuntz for District 1's seat, is a regular attendee of the public meetings by the Stark County commission and he said that he was disappointed in the decision to bar citizens from attending the public meeting before considering other options.

“I just think that the county needs to be more accessible to the public and be a lot more transparent,” he said. “If they can’t have it open to the public there needs to be a way to film it and put it on public television.”

Commission Chairman Pete Kuntz, Vice Chairman Dean Franchuk, and Commissioners Jay Elkin and Ken Zander did not provide comment on the decision at the time of publication.