On Thursday, Oct. 7, in a unanimous vote Stark County Commissioners appointed acting auditor Karen Richard as the official auditor for the county, but decided that the position would remain elected moving forward.
The move comes after two public commentary sessions in May were sought to provide the commissioners with feedback from the community on whether ongoing considerations to change the county auditor position from elected to appointment had public support.
The considerations on appointment were first discussed as a remedy to investigations which uncovered alleged illegality, malfeasance and incompetence by the previous Stark County Auditor prior to her resignation in October of 2020.
With an appointed auditor, the commission would have the authority to terminate them for cause with simple administrative procedures. Further, some commissioners have argued that by hiring an auditor there is a better chance to ensure that a well qualified and capable individual fills the position — without the concern of a populous driven electorate choosing a candidate based on personality alone.
The overwhelming response from citizens during the public hearings was for the commission to leave the position elected, despite the difficulties that accompany removing elected officials for cause.
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 to be made in the North Dakota Century Code to better allow citizens and the county to remove elected auditors in matters of cause.
The discussed changes stemmed from a string of investigative news reports released in 2020 that found that then auditor Kay Haag made serious errors in the 2020 Stark County Commission primary election, among other issues. The investigative reporting featured in The Press led to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office launching an investigation into the matter.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, Haag was confirmed 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.
Additional discrepancies continued to mount against Haag’s office as additional information was uncovered relating to 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 by The Press, which uncovered that the Stark County general fund and multiple special revenue fund cash reserve balances totaling $23.3 million in excess of the law were in the account.
This investigation led to State Auditor Joshua Gallion conducting an audit, in which he concluded that the auditor and then county commission had not followed state laws.
"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."
As a string of additional investigative reports came to light, Haag announced her resignation at a Stark County Commission meeting in October of 2020 — less than a month before the November election and causing some confusion on how to replace the position in the midst of an election.
On Thursday, commissioners Carla Arthaud and Bernie Marsh voiced their desire to have the matter placed on the ballot for the voters to decide.
Stark County Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Hope interjected and highlighted for the commissioners that regardless of the outcome of a public vote on the matter, the final decision would still remain with the commissioners and that any public vote would serve only to provide the commission with additional considerations before making the decision.
After some back and forth conversations on the subject, the commission voted to appoint Richard as the auditor to fill the vacancy left by Haag, but left the position elected — meaning that Richard would have to run for the position at the next election for auditor.