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Ward County wants Gov. Doug Burgum to dismiss request to remove sheriff from office

MINOT, N.D. -- Ward County commissioners plan to ask North Dakota's new governor to dismiss the former governor's removal proceedings against Sheriff Steve Kukowski. The commission voted Tuesday, Jan. 3, to write a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum to r...

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MINOT, N.D. - Ward County commissioners plan to ask North Dakota's new governor to dismiss the former governor's removal proceedings against Sheriff Steve Kukowski.

The commission voted Tuesday, Jan. 3, to write a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum to request that removal action be dropped. Gov. Jack Dalrymple had initiated removal proceedings after a special prosecutor handling misdemeanor charges against Kukowski petitioned for removal last March. Dalrymple suspended Kukowski in June, pending a removal hearing that has been delayed until the the criminal case is decided.

Kukowski faces three misdemeanor charges that relate to an incident in October 2014, in which an ill jail inmate died after transport to a law enforcement agency in Bismarck. The charges include failing to perform his public duty and reckless endangerment.

An August trial had been postponed to Jan. 3 and then delayed again when Kukowski's defense asked for more time. The trial now is expected to be rescheduled later in January.

"This has gone on long enough," said Commissioner Alan Walter, who pushed for the letter to the governor. "The man is in limbo, has been for close to a year. Nothing has come of it. I don't know that anything ever will."

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Walter said the trial delay comes from the prosecution failing to provide timely information to the defense. He added the charges against Kukowski are not felonies that would require removal.

"I think enough is enough. We have been on a witch hunt damn near a year," Walter said. "It's time we stand up and say, 'This man was duly elected, was not proven guilty of anything. He can go back to work.'"

Commissioner John Fjeldahl, who cast the lone vote against Walter's motion, was hesitant to inject the commission into the removal process and seek dismissal before the criminal trial is held.

"I think it's wrong what we are doing," he said. "That's kind of making this political, which I am really uncomfortable with."

However, he supported asking the governor to lift Kukowski's suspension so the sheriff can return to work while the proceedings continue.

Ward County State's Attorney Rozanna Larson said she could not say without studying the law whether the governor has authority to halt the removal process. Based on that uncertainty, the commission adopted Fjeldahl's separate motion to include language in the letter to the governor that seeks to lift the suspension if dismissal is not possible.

Last July, the commission had considered asking Dalrymple to drop the removal proceeding. Commissioners decided against doing so after meeting in closed session with Larson and seeking out more information from the special prosecutor, Seymour Jordan of Crosby.

The county commission also had initially declined to accept the governor's suspension of Kukowski on the basis that due process wasn't being followed. Commissioners went along with the suspension after receiving additional information from the governor's office but continued to pay Kukowski his salary. The commission reviewed the pay issue before Christmas and agreed to continue the salary in 2017.

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Commissioner Shelly Weppler said her concern with the sheriff's continued suspension relates to staffing. The county has been paying the chief deputy at the sheriff's pay grade to act in the position, without backfilling the chief deputy job.

"My concern is we are running short-staffed," Weppler said.

Jordan had petitioned for Kukowski's removal without consulting the commission after commissioners requested he review whether removal would be appropriate. Larson reminded commissioners that they wanted a review because of feedback they were getting about Kukowski remaining in office.

During Tuesday's discussion, no commissioner indicated feeling pressure from the public to remove Kukowski. Walter said the only comments he heard were in support of the sheriff. Fjeldahl said the dissatisfaction he heard about Kukowski remaining in office came from the state Department of Corrections.

Related Topics: DOUG BURGUM
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