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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published May 11 2013

Griggs County Courthouse plans spark backlash

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – A group of Griggs County residents will begin circulating petitions this week for the recall of all five Griggs County commissioners.

They are protesting the county board’s decision to build a

$3.5 million courthouse and emergency operations center in spite of three separate bond issues that voters have defeated in the past two years.

Earlier this month, the County Commission, acting as a separate building authority, approved bonding of about $2.2 million. The county also intends to use a $1 million federal grant for a new law enforcement center as part of the same building project.

“The idea that the commissioners know better than the citizens is disgusting to me,” said John Wakefield, a Cooperstown resident who is part of the recall effort. “Why go against the will of the people?”

The County Commission, which plans to break ground in June, has scheduled a public meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at

Griggs County Central School to discuss the project.

“We’re not going to raise the taxes to build this courthouse,” Commission Chairman Ron Halvorson said. “We’re using mills we already have.”

While the North Dakota Century Code allows counties to levy up to 10 mills for court facilities, including jails or other county projects, county officials hope to reduce or even eliminate the need to raise local property taxes.

Halvorson said they will reallocate money from a variety of county departments, including county water and weed boards, which have their own mill levies.

“We need 10 mills,” he said. “I think we can come up with that.”

One mill currently brings in about $15,000 annually in Griggs County.

Project plans

The one-story facility will be built just to the south of the existing building, which is the oldest county courthouse in North Dakota that still is in its original use. Built in 1884 for about $30,000, the three-story building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

However, the building has serious health, accessibility and structural issues, which the county said are too costly to justify.

The county social services and sheriff’s departments were forced to move out of the building in 2011 because of mold that was found on the bottom floor. Since then, mold has been found elsewhere in the building.

All county offices will move into the new building, with the courthouse on one end and the emergency operations center on the other.

The current historic building will sit empty, at least for the foreseeable future. Halvorson said the county is working with the State Historical Society on plans to eventually tear the building down.

“In time, it’ll get torn down,” he said. “Hopefully we can save some of the things in it and keep it in a display.”

Past elections

In September 2011, voters soundly defeated a $4.7 million bond issue to renovate the present courthouse and build an adjoining EOC. The election was held just days after the county learned that it would receive a nearly

$1 million federal grant for the law enforcement addition.

Last June, voters turned back a scaled-down, $3.1 million proposal, with just 44 percent approval. A 60 percent majority is required.

The latest defeat came in January, when the county proposed a $1.9 million courthouse, plus the EOC.

After that defeat, the County Commission initially set a fourth election in March. However, the board later rescinded that action and instead formed a building authority, which decided to proceed with the project.

Deadlines forced the county’s hand, according to Halvorson.

The county faces a spring 2014 deadline to build the EOC or risk losing the federal grant, he said. Had a fourth election been held and the project rejected, the county would not have enough time to complete the project.

“We’d be crazy to turn back that grant and lose a million dollars,” he said. “We have to address some serious problems with the courthouse, and this is the best way to do that.”

Petition drive

Opposition leaders sent recall petition paperwork to the North Dakota secretary of state’s office this past week. A separate petition is required for each of the five county commissioners: Ron and Dennis Halvorson, Keith Monson, Robert Johnson and Ronnie Edland.

The petition drive will begin when they get that approval, which should happen this week.

The law requires signatures of 25 percent of the number of residents in each district who voted in the past gubernatorial election. That amounts to about 60 to 75 signatures per district.

“We expect to be 15 to 20 percent over that in each district,” Wakefield said.

Once the signatures are gathered and the petitions are certified, the county has 90 to 100 days to schedule a special recall election.

All current commissioners automatically would be placed on the ballot.

Wakefield said opposition candidates are being recruited in each district.

“Why go against the will of the people?” Wakefield said. “Our goal is to take control of the County Commission and put whatever issues that are left back into the hands of the people.”

In the meantime, his group is challenging the county’s actions.

It has sought opinions from the North Dakota attorney general’s office about the legality of the county’s building authority and its actions. The group also is alleging violations of open meeting and open records laws.

“This is a voter rights issue,” Wakefield said. “It’s a historic preservation issue. It’s a tax issue.”


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