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ND sheriff returns to office after Burgum dismisses removal petition

McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger

WATFORD CITY, N.D.—McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger planned to be back in his office Friday for the first time since he was suspended in November after Gov. Doug Burgum dismissed the removal petition against him, ending months of legal and political wrangling.

Burgum's announcement, which was effective immediately, came 10 days after Special Commissioner Karen Klein recommended that the removal proceedings be dismissed and Schwartzenberger returned to office. Schwartzenberger has been suspended from office since Nov. 23, when then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple placed him on suspension following a vote by the McKenzie County Commission in favor of a petition for removal.

"We're obviously quite pleased with (the decision)," Michael Geiermann, Schwartzenberger's attorney, said Friday. "He's going to resume his duties as quickly as he can."

Normally, removal proceedings are supposed to take 30 days. In her report, Klein summarized why it took so much longer than that.

"A rather complex and convoluted series of events, including motions to dismiss on the merits and on procedural grounds, replacement of a Special Prosecutor, a motion to amend the complaint, motions seeking document subpoenas and deposition subpoenas, and motions to quash subpoenas, together with hearings on the motions, took place prior to the final hearing on the merits that finally occurred on July 17 and 18," she wrote.

In his order, Burgum offered both criticism and advice.

"Special Commissioner Klein noted evidence of heavy-handedness, crude and unprofessional behavior, and non-collaborative actions by Sheriff Schwartzenberger," Burgum wrote in his order. "And while these actions may not manifest optimal outcomes or performance, Commissioner Klein further concluded that none of these actions singularly, or in total, meet the high burden of proof threshold required for removal of a duly elected official from office."

The County Commission's request to have Schwartzenberger removed from office cited numerous complaints, including accusing him of bullying and retaliating against certain employees, creating a military-like work environment and being prone to fits of anger.

Geiermann said the issues between Schwartzenberger and the county commission are well documented.

"There's two sides to the story," Geiermann said. "Sheriff Schwartzenberger never did anything to warrant his removal from office. That's a very drastic remedy."

Burgum urged both Schwartzenberger and commissioners to see this as a fresh start rather than a continuation of their conflict.

"Understandably, a fresh start will be difficult and will require introspection, humility and forgiveness by many parties," Burgum wrote. "As elected officials, each Commission member and the Sheriff must remember the fundamental purpose and responsibilities inherent in their respective positions — to serve and protect the citizens and resources of McKenzie County. Sheriff Schwartzenberger's reinstatement and return to his elected position is his opportunity to lead with humility, integrity and respect — and to treat every employee, every elected official and every citizen with fairness. If these opportunities are acknowledged, appreciated and pursued with empathy and determination, McKenzie County will become a stronger and more vibrant community in which to work, live and prosper."

Schwartzenberger, who was elected in 2014, is scheduled to go to trial in September on a class A misdemeanor criminal charge for allegedly misusing his department's credit card by making $980 in unauthorized charges during a trip to a sheriff's convention in early 2015.