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Kindred council member vows challenge if she loses recall vote

Kindred City Council member Julie Johnson. (Forum File Photo)

KINDRED, N.D. — A Kindred City Council member who is the target of a recall election says that if she doesn't win, she will challenge the result on the grounds that the ballots weren't ready in the time mandated by state law.

Julie Johnson, who says she's been unfairly targeted in the recall because she sought to fix problems in how the city was running, says the recall election ballots weren't ready for the public 40 days before the Tuesday, Sept. 19, election, as required by North Dakota's Century Code.

Johnson said the ballots were distributed about Aug. 23, less than 30 days before the election.

The 38-year-old said Wednesday, Sept. 13, that she will dispute the election if she loses.

"If I don't get enough votes, I have every intention of contesting the election," because proper procedures weren't followed as outlined in state law, Johnson said.

"As of right now, I don't feel the election was fair. I feel I was personally being attacked" by organizers of the recall, she said.

Both of her challengers, Jason DuBord and former mayor and council member Robert Clarke, are careful to say they aren't criticizing Johnson's actions on the council, including a public disagreement with former city auditor Twila Morrison, in trying to take her council seat away from her.

Clarke, 66, who had served on the council 24 years, including 10 years as mayor, said he was asked to run for Johnson's council seat "to get things straightened out."

He said three members of the council — David Amerman, Shad Stoddard and Adam Spelhaug — have not served a full four-year term. Johnson is a year into her second term on the council.

"I'm hoping with the experience I have, that I can help steer the city in the right direction," Clarke said. "Sometimes, I feel a little expertise might be needed."

Clarke said Johnson did Kindred a service by finding problems that needed to be corrected, even if she rubbed people the wrong way as she worked through the issue.

"I would be perfectly OK if she got the seat back. If I lose, that's the way it goes," Clarke said.

DuBord said he and his family moved back to Kindred recently after living in Denver for a decade.

"Frankly, I just wanted to be involved" in running the city, the 37-year-old said. "I'm not running against Julie. I actually think Julie has done a fine job in reference to many of her efforts."

A rocky spring

The recall election was born of a rocky spring on the council.

At one council meeting, there was a "you go or I go" faceoff between Morrison and Johnson. Morrison stuck to her guns and left. Then she was reinstated to the job for a time, before quitting again for a job in the private sector.

Johnson previously told The Forum that friction between herself and Morrison arose when she questioned how things were done and was initially refused access to public records. In interviews and in a letter to the editor, Johnson said once she examined the records, she found issues with how overtime was paid to city employees, that a number of water meters were being estimated continuously, and that public records had been changed without permission. She also said an external audit of city records was warranted.

Mayor Jeff Wanner, who's also Johnson's father, tried to mend the rift between Johnson and Morrison, then resigned because of the hullabaloo. Wanner returned not long after, saying he didn't get the resignation done properly, and had decided to stay in the job.

The push for the special election began earlier this year when a group of city residents claimed Johnson was aggressive and disrespectful in dealings she had with city staff, including Morrison. They collected 124 signatures to force the recall.

'Just doing my job'

On Wednesday, Johnson said further digging later found "an astronomical amount of errors and mistakes" in water meter readings and billings.

"I just feel that the whole situation from the very beginning, has just been filled with personal opinions and vendettas against me. I feel I have done nothing wrong, just doing my job," Johnson said.

The Cass County Auditor's Office is handling the election.

DeAnn Buckhouse, the county's election coordinator, said it's a service the auditor normally does during regularly scheduled elections, but the city "had no staff" when absentee ballots needed to be printed. Buckhouse said Kindred's new auditor just started Tuesday, Sept. 5.

LeeAnn Oliver, an elections specialist with the North Dakota Secretary of State's Office, confirmed that state law says ballots must be ready 40 days before an election, while another statute allows for contesting improperly cast or erroneous votes.

Oliver said it would be up to a judge to decide if Johnson was right if she was defeated and contested the result.

The election will run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Kindred City Hall, Buckhouse said, with the city picking up the cost.

The bulk of the cost will be in printing ballots and hiring three election workers. The election workers will cost about $700 overall for the day, she said.

Buckhouse expects about 25 absentee ballots to be cast, and is printing 600 to 700 ballots for election day.

"It has the potential to be a good turnout," Buckhouse said, because the issue has been "a little contentious."

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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