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End of an era for three elected Cass County officials?

Cass County Recorder Jewel Spies, Treasurer Charlotte Sandvik and Auditor Mike Montplaisir below the recently restored Cass County Courthouse rotunda on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO—Commissioners here are mulling a major change in Cass County government: The auditor, treasurer and recorder could be appointed rather than elected by voters.

Appointing the three positions was first suggested in a study a dozen years ago, and draft ordinances were prepared, but the idea was shelved.

But the approaching retirements of Treasurer Charlotte Sandvik and Recorder Jewel Spies, who both will step down when their terms end in 2019, has rekindled the discussion.

"It's getting to the time that some of these offices are going to be turning over, and the concern is how they're going to be filled," Auditor Mike Montplaisir said Tuesday, Aug. 15.

Each of the three officials whose elective office could become appointive spoke in favor of the change, although each enjoyed being chosen by voters.

"I like being elected, however, I see the advantage for the county of appointing someone," said Montplaisir, who added that the three officers do not make policies but carry out policies.

One of the factors driving consideration of the proposed change: All three leadership positions require specialized technical expertise that might more readily be filled by appointment rather than election.

"They are very technical in nature and become moreso every year," said Montplaisir, who points out that he was appointed to work as an accountant in the auditor's office before he was first elected auditor in 1990.

The Cass County Commission seeks public input on the appointment proposal during a hearing at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21, in the commission chambers of the courthouse, 211 9th St. S. in Fargo.

No vote is immediately expected on the issue, which would be accomplished by ordinance under the Cass County Home Rule Charter. Proposed ordinances require a first and second reading before adoption. A simple majority of the five-member commission could vote to make the change, said Robert Wilson, Cass County administrator.

"I think it has a great deal of merit," Commissioner Vern Bennett said of the proposal to appoint the three officials. "I think the appointment situation will guarantee that we have the qualifications for the job."

Because of the approaching retirements of Spies and Sandvik, the proposed change is ripe for discussion, Commissioner Mary Scherling said.

Montplaisir's term also expires at the start of 2019, but he plans to run for another term—or, if the change is made, seek appointment to the job.

"I think now is the time to ask the questions," Scherling said. "It's important to do that."

Because it would diminish voters' ability to choose their auditor, treasurer and recorder, it's crucial to invite public input, she said.

"I'm very cautious when it comes to removing any direct voter input," Scherling said.

In the late 1990s, the North Dakota Legislature gave counties the option of appointing the three positions as part of an effort to streamline county government.

Bennett said he believes his fellow commissioners support the appointment idea, which was discussed at their Aug. 7 meeting, but he wants input from voters before moving ahead with any ordinance because of the proposal's magnitude.

"That's why we'll have some hearings to discuss the issue," he said.

Commissioners also will consider merging the offices of the auditor and treasurer, a move Sandvik and Montplaisir support. Both said their offices work closely together and can be combined.

There has been a trend among North Dakota counties toward appointing rather than electing some county officials. In 1993, excluding judges, 570 county officials in North Dakota were elected. By 2016, the number had dwindled to 457, a reduction of 113, according to figures compiled by the county.

Unlike counties, North Dakota cities apparently always have appointed their auditors and treasurers, given the technical nature of their roles, Montplaisir said.

Appointed officials likely would be as responsive to the public as elected officials, given the collaborative nature of their roles, Montplaisir said.

"Because of the nature of our office, you have to be responsive," he said. "I don't think we're going to be any more responsive or less responsive."

Would an auditor, treasurer or recorder have more clout if elected? Scherling doesn't think so.

"Their duties are defined by Century Code," she said, referring to state statutes. "I don't see how that would change any."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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