Stark County Commissioners on Tuesday, May 4, held the first of two public commentary sessions aimed at getting public feedback on whether ongoing considerations to change the county auditor position from an electoral process to one through appointment have public support.
The classification of the majority of local officials as government employees means that both elected and appointed officials must follow the same rules when it comes to taxes, finances, and other important matters. Government employees are also held accountable by the people, regardless of whether or not they are elected.
The considerations are being made after investigations uncovered alleged illegality, malfeasance and incompetence by the previous Stark County Auditor prior to her resignation in October of 2020.
Residents and commissioners alike engaged in back and forth debates on the merits of both options, while the overwhelmingly popular view at the public podium favored keeping the position elected.
“I believe that the role of the auditor should be an elected position and not assigned,” Andrew Kordonowy, District 36 chairman and Stark County resident, said. “I don’t see the solution to our past problems being the commission appointing (the auditor position) and I believe that the role of the auditor is more important to us as a people, for them to be accountable to us and not accountable to the commission.”
Echoing the sentiments were other speakers.
“I’ve worked with two of your auditors in the past, and those were both elected positions, and I think it should remain an elected position. The auditors work with the different cities and if they do a good job they are sure to get voted back in,” Cindy Ewoniuk, a Belfield resident, said. “In 2020, we felt like our ability to vote was taken away. We questioned the validity of our vote and I would like it to stay as an elected position.”
Another resident highlighted that the process being considered, could be considered for many of the elected positions and asked where the line would be drawn.
“I’m kind of troubled by some of the lessons that we’ve apparently learned from COVID over the past year, because we seem to be trading, once again, our rights for our security and ease...Trading off a long list of different things that make it easier if we appoint this position because we can have these qualifications versus rolling the dice with freedom,” Jeff Ficek, a Stark County resident, said. “Once you give up a right, it does not come back readily. They are fighting that in the rest of the country. If we took Sheriff Lee’s job and listed all the qualifications that are required from him, it would look like this sheet up here. No one is suggesting here, I hope, that he’s got a long list of duties and responsibilities and we should make that an appointed position too because it’s easier.”
Many of the opposition voices argued that instead of changing the position from an elected one to an appointed one, that the commission should consider lobbying for and pursuing amendments be made to the North Dakota Century Code in order to make removal of elected auditors easier in matters of cause.
The lone vocal supporter of changing the position to an appointed one came from Jessica O'Brien, a resident of Stark County, who argued that the voice of the people would not be silenced by the proposed changes — noting that having a qualified person fill the position would be better than a popularity contest.
“I do not believe that moving this position from elected to appointed will reduce any of our freedoms, and if anything will give us stronger recourse as citizens. If you have a complaint you’re not standing there saying, ‘ok, well in four years I hope we can get someone else in.’ We can bring those complaints to the commission, to the HR department for the county and they can be addressed and disciplinary action could be taken,” O’Brien said. “The people have been heard. We elected you all as our commissioners, and picked you because we trust you to run our county. In order for you to do your job you need to be able to have the authority to pick and approve who is going to be your support system...As far as the checks and balances against the commission by the auditor, that falls on the state auditor. The county auditor reports to the state auditor.”
The discussed changes follow a string of investigative reports being released in 2020 that found that then auditor Kay Haag made serious errors in the 2020 Stark County Commission primary election, according to a North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office investigation that was prompted by investigative reporting conducted by The Dickinson Press.
Haag was confirmed by the secretary of state’s office to have committed “many errors” resulting in multiple ineligible candidates, spanning three elections, being placed on ballots in Stark County — some of which won the election.
Those initial discrepancies continued to mount against Haag’s office as additional information was uncovered in her handling of elections dating as far back as 2016 and 2018.
The election concerns paved the way for additional investigations into the auditor’s office which uncovered that the Stark County general fund and multiple special revenue fund cash reserve balances totaled $23.3 million in excess of the law, according to State Auditor Joshua Gallion.
"While paying taxes is necessary for continuity of government provided services, over-taxation of citizens is unacceptable. This is money that belongs to the citizens of Stark County," Gallion said. "These funds come from areas such as property taxes. Having balances that are dramatically over the amount allowed by law is concerning."
Haag announced her resignation at a Stark County Commission meeting in October of 2020, less than a month before the November election — causing some confusion on how to replace the position in the midst of an election.
North Dakota Century Code 44-02-4 addresses the process for filling a vacancy in the county auditor position should the auditor resign. In it, it states that the vacancy must be filled by the board of county commissioners — a matter that has been a subject of contention amongst elected officials in the county and opened the door for a consideration of changing the position to appointment.
A second public hearing will be held by the commission at their regularly scheduled meeting in June to discuss the proposal of making the position an appointed one. Expectations by the commission is that a final decision will be made and acted upon thereafter in July or August.
Commission president Dean Franchuk said the commission must make the decision before December 15, saying that if a decision is made to keep the process an elected one, citizens seeking to run for the position at the next election would need ample time to undertake the process.