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Published June 10 2010

It's hard to fill seats in small-town elections

Kathie Schobinger didn’t want to be the one to have to tell her husband Wednesday that he’d been elected as a write-in candidate to the City Council in Gardner, N.D.

“It’s not an honor,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh God, it’s my rotation again. Let’s hope it goes fast.’ ”

Gene Schobinger received two votes in Tuesday’s election. So did Ruth Schepp. That made them the winners of the two open council seats because the 15 other write-ins each got only one vote apiece.

Cass County election coordinator DeAnn Buckhouse said the shortage of candidates in small towns is a growing trend.

It was evident in Tuesday’s election, with several open seats for council, park board and even mayor having to be filled with write-in candidates.

“If you live in a small community, it’s usually somebody talked you into running, because nobody really has a burning desire to take on a lot of extra work with no pay and everything,” County Auditor Mike Montplaisir said. “It’s just hard in these small towns.”

Gardner, a city of about 80 people, had no candidates on the ballot. Bryce Bjerke was elected mayor with nine write-in votes.

Mayoral races also were decided by write-in votes in Argusville and Davenport, with Darin Loetzel and Larry Palluck drawing the most votes, respectively.

Five cities had council seats filled by write-ins. The top two vote-getters tied in both Page and Tower City. Two Briarwood council candidates who were on the ballot also tied with 14 votes.

A tie triggers an automatic recount. If it remains a tie afterward, the winner is decided by drawing a name in the presence of the City Council, said DeAnn Buckhouse, Cass County’s election coordinator.

Votes must be canvassed Monday before the recounts can begin.

No ballots were cast Tuesday in tiny Ayr. Current Mayor Rand McLeod said the council will likely appoint candidates Terry Wills and Candi Wills to spots on the City Council, including one that would fill a two-year unfilled term.

While governing a small city may not seem burdensome, Buckhouse said it carries the potential for great responsibility.

“If there’s a flood or, like in Northwood, they have a tornado, that becomes a huge, vastly responsible position,” she said.

City leaders also make decisions that sometimes pit them against their neighbors, “and in a small community, that’s not a lot of fun,” Montplaisir said.

Gene Schobinger said he’s not sure if he’ll accept the Gardner council seat. He chose not to run in the first place because he owns a business and developable land and didn’t want to run into a conflict of interest. He said there’s also feuding in town over a drainage ditch that was recently plugged on purpose.

“The town’s sick,” he said, adding most residents don’t possess the experience and legal expertise to deal with such matters.

Montplaisir said the county needs to do a better job of communicating to small cities the importance of fielding candidates and voting in their general elections.

“How we do that, I’m not sure,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528