Rest of the Story

Breakfast Posse asks, “what’s going on over in McKenzie County?” OK, second-guessed on criminal charging — no comment! But, to recap, in November, 2015, straight arrow Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger, newly-elected, ex-Marine, extremely popular, life-long Watford City native, garnering 61 percent of the popular vote, was accussed by County Auditor Linda Svihovec of using a county credit card for “unauthorized” personal expenses during a business trip.

And, two other complaints filed against Schwartzenberger subordinates — “petty, partisan, politics” says respected attorney Tom Dickson. Also raising claims of “selective prosecution.” Troublesome since one of those criminal cases was already dismissed by the court, finding no evidence existed to support it. The other two are set before juries before the end of the year.

Putting to rest, once and for all, these “allegations” — innocent until proven guilty — right? Not quite. The Dickinson Press reports that its County Commission just piled on and “voted unanimously … to remove … Schwartzenberger from office” for “workplace bullying and retaliation.” Findings of a private “investigation” ordered by County HR Director Amanda Willis. Huh?

If what’s being reported is correct, all elected officeholders have a dog in that fight. In North Dakota, the governor can only “remove” an elected county official whenever it appears more likely than not, “after a hearing,” not a commission meeting, that official is “guilty of misconduct, malfeasance, crime in office, neglect of duty, habitual substance abuse or gross incompetency.”

Serious misdeeds which have never included “harassment.” Neither McKenzie County commissioners, Svihovec, nor her subordinate Ms. Willis, can put a deputy “on administrative leave” while they “decide on disciplinary action that could include termination” either. It’s that whole separation of powers thing. Commissioners pass other’s budgets, but, elected officials run their own, independent offices and have no say in others.

Schwartzenberger also points out, Willis has been charged with theft in Bismarck’s District Court and, no discipline has, yet, been forthcoming from either Svihovec or the County Commission. Again, he decries selective motivation.

If a deputy feels “harassed,” that’s something they have to take up with his or her boss or, a court of law. The tail doesn’t wag the dog and, there’s no “presumption” of harassment. Just because a disgruntled employee says it, doesn’t make it true. It’s not a governor’s, county commission’s, auditor’s or, an HR director’s purview.

This whole “independent investigation” thing is also incredulous since a private “outside agency,” hired by political foes, has no jurisdiction at all. North Dakota doesn’t recognize this  county executive model and shouldn’t.

No less than 14 separate North Dakota Supreme Court- and Attorney General-written opinions, since 1916, cry foul. Simply being paid from county coffers doesn’t make one an employee of a county commission — themselves, elected officials. A check and balance to make sure that one group cannot control another’s office by undermining what they can/can’t do with their subordinates or their independent authority.

“A board of county commissioners may not restrict or remove a county officer’s authority to (discipline) an employee hired by that officer … except through personnel policies that do not usurp or significantly interfere with an elected officer’s authority” to run his/her own department. So saith the law! And, the court has already ordered a stand down to these folks.

Resident Chris McCullough says, “a witch hunt motivated by a personality conflict (between) county officials and the sheriff. They need to stop fighting and start realizing that we like this man.” Five hundredd signatures in opposition to the commission’s actions so far.

Ah, politics! What’s it good for?

Pat Merriman is the Dunn County State Attorney. He is a photographer and also officiates high school and college athletics events in the area.


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