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I saw the sign: Citizens, watchdog group accuse district of unlawful practices

Driving around town, you may have noticed signs encouraging people to vote in the upcoming bond referendum for a new high school in Dickinson. Though they may look identical at first glance, there are actually two different signs. The signs on pr...

The school district's signs are placed on school properties and do not include the word 'yes.' (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)
The school district's signs are placed on school properties and do not include the word 'yes.' (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)
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Driving around town, you may have noticed signs encouraging people to vote in the upcoming bond referendum for a new high school in Dickinson. Though they may look identical at first glance, there are actually two different signs.

The signs on private property read "Vote yes for our future" and were placed there by members of the YES Committee, an organization comprised of community members in favor of the bond.

Superintendent Shon Hocker said that the YES Committee is not associated with the school district and that none of the "Vote yes" signs are associated with the district.

"We have no supervision over that group, as a school district. They are not a function of the school district or any of our schools or our school board," he said.

The signs on public school property read "Vote for our future" and were placed there by members of the school district.

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Regardless of the lack of the word "yes" on the district's signs, concerned citizens in Dickinson see this as an ethical and possibly legal violation of the North Dakota Century Code, specifically section 16.1-10.02 which states: "No person may use any property belonging to or leased by ... the state or any agency, department, bureau, board, commission or political subdivision thereof, for any political purpose."

"Political purpose" is defined in the century code as "any activity undertaken in support of or in opposition to a statewide initiated or referred measure ... a political subdivision ballot measure ... and includes using 'vote for,' 'oppose,' or any similar support or opposition language in any advertisement."

Dustin Gawrylow of the North Dakota Watchdog Network has been looking into the matter and voiced his opinion.

"You and I both know that 'vote for the future' does not mean 'no' in their campaign strategy, so there is an implied yes, whether the word 'yes' is there or not," he said.

Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning sees the sign differently. He said as far as he knows, there's nothing wrong with the district's signs reading "Vote for our future."

"One of the guys who called me said, 'It's slanted toward vote yes.' Well, I'm pretty uncomfortable with saying that it's anything more than it's an attempt to get (people) out to vote ... It doesn't contain a request or recommendation to vote 'yes,'" he said.

Others voiced concerns that the district's sign violates the century code because it uses the words "vote for." Henning said he thinks it is a gray area, "to the extent it doesn't say 'vote yes.'"

"It's 'vote for your future.' Maybe I don't anticipate that I want my future to include whatever tax assessment a successful bond issue would generate," Henning said.

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Hocker said the signs the district placed on its properties are informative only.

"The signs that we are putting up ... they do not promote a vote yes or a vote no, which we are not allowed to do," he said.

Citizens also questioned the similarity in the signs and expressed concern that they were created by the same person or group.

"The font and the colors are exactly the same in the materials that the district puts on their website versus the YES Committee, so that leads me to believe that the same person and the same computer are being used," Gawrylow said.

Superintendent Shon Hocker said he could not verify where the YES Committee got their signs, but said that the district got its design from JE Dunn Construction. Even if JE Dunn provided the template for both signs, Hocker does not see this as an issue.

"If JE Dunn provided the template for both the YES and the district, so be it," he said. "That's not a crime. That's not an issue. I can't speak for JE Dunn. ... Let's pretend I was a neutral Printing R Us company. If you came to me and said, 'I want 1,000 vote YES signs. Will you make them for me? I'd say, 'Yes.' ... If I had a group come in and said, 'I want 1,000 vote NO signs. Will you make them for me?' Would you make them? You would! ... I just don't see how anybody would be concerned or upset that the same company printed yes or no or neutral to three different organizations."

Gawrylow insinuated that JE Dunn is running a campaign for the school district in the hopes of getting the construction contract for the new school.

"Construction companies and engineering companies are now in the business of launching political campaigns so that they can get the contract for the $100 million schools. It's completely legal, because there's no law that says that it's not," he said.

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The issue with this theory is that JE Dunn already has a contract with the school district. As The Press reported in November, the school district hired JE Dunn as construction manager at risk long before the signs went up or the YES Committee was formed.

However, JE Dunn has an interest in the bond passing. Unless the bond passes, they will not be paid. In this contract, JE Dunn's pre-construction services are free to the district. If the community votes in favor of the bond, the company will oversee the construction, receiving bids for the various phases of the project, for which they will be paid.

"They're doing all of this pro bono ... If they don't have a job to do after May 7, they don't get any money," Hocker said.

Henning said the matter has been brought to his attention.

"Review has been requested, and I am awaiting a formal complaint that I have been advised is going to be forthcoming from one of the complainants," Henning said.

The district is frustrated with the controversy.

"I guess I just don't know what they're fishing for. ... What I'm finding is it's like throwing a big net trying to catch whatever they can maybe catch. It's taking tons of resources and tons of time away from the work that we have of educating kids," Hocker said.

The YES Committee's signs are posted on private property. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)
The YES Committee's signs are posted on private property. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

Related Topics: DICKINSON PUBLIC SCHOOLS
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