Vacancy and salary disputes dominate Dunn County meeting
The Dunn County Commission discussed the vacancy of the auditor-elect and the salary of State's Attorney Christina Kissinger.
Editor's Note: The initial version of this article erroneously stated the auditor's salary was raised with 2.5% merit increase but the increase was instead universal, as every employee on the Dunn County pay-scale received it.
MANNING, N.D. — During a regular meeting of the Dunn County Commission on Wednesday, Mar. 1, commissioners discussed the recently vacated role of auditor-elect and the salary of State’s Attorney Christina Kissinger.
Deputy Auditor Sally Whittingham has been serving as interim auditor since late December, when Auditor-elect Jessica Kirchoffner stated she would not begin the job until her term officially started at the beginning of April. Previous auditor Tracey Dolezal was elected as a county commissioner and could not hold both positions simultaneously, so she resigned prior to being sworn in as a commissioner on Dec. 7.
During the previous Feb. 15 commission meeting Kirchoffner submitted her letter of resignation, explaining that she no longer felt she was the right person for the job and that she was enjoying her current position.
“The circumstances surrounding the election of this position have gotten out of hand with certain residents creating more issues than there needs to be. I feel I have some people pushing me into the position so they may dictate their personal agenda through me and that is not the environment I want to work within,” Kirchoffner stated in the letter.
Jason North was the runner up for Dunn County Auditor and told commissioners that he is available to fill the position. He contends that his qualifications make him the best person to fill the job, citing a degree in finance from the University of Indiana, an MBA in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and his work experience which included several years as a senior business analyst. North lost the November election to Kirchoffner, who garnered the vast majority of the vote with 79.5%. North argued that the auditor should be someone who lives in Dunn County, which he purported was the case with him.
Whittingham is a likely candidate to fill the role for the first two years of Kirchoffner’s term, given her position and hands-on experience in previous years. Whitingham began work in accounting right after high school and said she’s proven herself through 32 years of on the job experience. Dolezal said she was impressed with Whitingham's work so far.
According to the ND Century Code, an elected auditor must live in the county they represent. Whittingham, however, lives in Dickinson. Despite the residency stipulation, Century Code does not apply to someone appointed to fill a vacancy as an interim. Unless the commission decides to change the auditor role from an elected to an appointed position, an effort that has failed in prior years in many southwest North Dakota counties, a special election for auditor will be held in 2024. Resident Tom Steffan expressed his concern in public commentary that Dunn County citizens should retain their right to elect their auditor.
In a previous meeting the county pay scale was set and with that, Kissinger’s salary was set at $90,204. Human Resources Director Dessie Calihou explained the 6.5% COLA increase, approved in July, only applied to individuals employed by the county during the previous year, which did not include Kissinger, who started work in January. Yet Calihou said the Attorney salary, along with all others on the county pay-scale, was boosted by 2.5% at the start of the new year. Kissinger had lobbied the commission to receive the same pay rate as her predecessor Stephanie Davis when Davis left office after losing the November election in a 59% to 41% vote. That rate was approximately $10,000 higher.
After the meeting Kleeman told The Dickinson Press he thought it was unfair the COLA (cost of living adjustment) pay increase was not applied to the State’s Attorney position. It would’ve taken a four vote majority to overturn the set salary by first approving a motion rescinding the initial salary offer. Commissioners Robert Kleeman and Craig Pelton voted in favor of the motion, which failed in a 2-3 vote.
"If we start deviating from the pay scale for certain positions, that isn't right," Dolezal said in an interview with The Press.
Dunn County Commission meetings are held on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. The next meeting will be held at 9 a.m. on March 15.