Richland County Primary Candidates Participate in Forum

The Richland County Farm Bureau held a candidate forum on at the Sidney Elks Lodge May 26. The following candidates were in attendance for sheriff; John Dynneson and Shane Kyhl; both candidates for county commissioner, Shane Gorder and Brian Holst; county attorney candidates, Charity McLarty and Layne Johnson; county treasurer Candidate Amy Metz, Clerk and Recorder Candidate Stephanie Verhasselt, County superintendent of schools candidate Tim Tharp, and District 35 State Representative Brandon Ler. The event was also shared on the Richland County Farm Bureau Facebook page. Candidates had the opportunity to answer a mixture of prepared questions as well as some asked by voters in attendance.

The seats for commissioner, sheriff and county attorney are contested; all other candidates are running unopposed. All candidates running are Republicans so the June 7 primary will decide which candidate will eventually take office.

Due to space and deadline limitations, this story will focus on the most contentious races. Those races being county commissioner and Richland County Sheriff. Voters are encouraged to visit the Richland County Farm Bureau Facebook page to hear from all candidates participating in the forum.

Richland County Commissioner

What does economic development look like for Richland County and how do you propose making it happen?

Holst began his answer by mentioning the Ag Expo building near Watford City. "They are building a great big building on the fairgrounds. It's going to be a multipurpose building. They are going to use it for many events. That was one of my differences between Shane. I would have liked to have seen something we can use all year round instead of just four days out of the year," he stated. "I feel that's what is missing in this community."

Gorder replied by mentioning differences between how taxes are gathered and distributed in North Dakota as opposed to Montana. " I think you would want to look at North Dakota's sales tax. I think you would want to look at oil revenue, how it's shared back to communities. Thirdly, they have the Legacy Fund over in North Dakota that is tremendous," he said. "Montana and Richland County is structured different."

During the boom, hotels received tax abatement. Following that was the important need for new structures for the 4-H buildings. "Our insurance company was telling us we need to do something with two of our buildings. The structure was failing," Gorder stated. He then continued by telling the story of how the old steer barn, built in 1918, had an I beam that fell from the ceiling hitting a steer and narrowly missing a 9 year old 4Her. "Where would we be today if that was a death?" he said.

Gorder said they worked very hard with 4-H and members of the community, a group of 15 to 20 people from Richland County, Roosevelt County and North Dakota. The process took 2 years. Gorder also said the new fair manager is working on different ways to utilize the buildings and market them. "We know that there is stuff coming. Give it time, it will be working. The difference between North Dakota and Montana is big."

How do you plan to address the lack of transparency within the county?

Gorder stated that all of the of the issues the commissioners handle is available in the newspaper, the agenda is published online and minutes are available to the public in the clerk and recorder's office. He also said that reporter Bill VanderWeele leaving the community has left a void in reporting the commissioner's business.

Holst disagreed. He admitted that he does not read the paper, but he talks to people. Holst would like to see more public forums for discussion of issues.

Holst went on to say that a county employee told him Gorder denied a request for a raise in pay.

Gorder countered this by stating that he has voted for pay increases for county employees every year. He said that all three commissioners vote on decisions and his record on voting on this issue is available for anyone to see in the minutes. In fact a pay increase comes into effect at the end of September.

How do you plan to support existing ag businesses and expansion as well as developing new ag business in Richland County?

Gorder mentioned the formation of Richland Economic Development (RED). RED is still operating and giving out a revolving loan fund to businesses. Currently there are two individuals that are looking to start a new business or take over an existing one. "That's been in place and that has been working well in my opinion," he said. "As a county commissioner, downtown businesses are in the hands of the mayor and the city. Things out in the county, things come through us as major subdivisions."

Holst agreed that RED is a great thing for the county, but he would like to see the county work with the city more on new businesses coming in. "I feel there is a little separation in there and if we could all get along and get more businesses in town it would be awesome," he said. "Our downtown is falling apart as we speak. I just heard the other day our clothing store is going out of town."

Gorder rebutted by mentioning that as county commissioner, state statute bars them from loaning money to businesses directly. "What the county commissioners did with economic development was to fund that nonprofit group in order to bring the businesses in," he said. "I think our partnership with the mayor of Fairview and the mayor of Sidney is a pretty good partnership." Gorder continued by mentioning how the county worked with both towns to build new volunteer fire department facilities.

Holst agreed with Gorder that the fire department facilities were a good idea but pushed back on the relationship between the mayors and commissioners. "I'm all for infrastructure on our safety. I think we could work together a little bit better from commissioners to the city. I've talked to the mayors and I just feel like we are not talking to each other for some reason," he said. "There's a little animosity between them."

Editors note: Following the candidate forum, on May 27, Sidney Mayor Rick Norby reached out to The Roundup to refute Holst's claims of lack of communication and animosity between the city and the county commissioners. Norby stated that he had no such conversation with Holst. "It was total crap. I have no idea what he's up to there," he said. "We have a very close relationship. We don't always see eye-to-eye of course but there is no feud, there's no rift, there's nothing like that. I have a close relationship with all three of those guys and I know Brian Bieber does too."

How will you support existing value added agriculture businesses such as Eastern Montana Meats and pursue more opportunities for Sidney Sugars?

Gorder began his answer describing the battles local agriculture has faced in his time as commissioner. He spoke of how the ag community and local businesses banded together to travel to Great Falls to make a statement during the Intake Diversion Dam court battle. He also mentioned the closure of the coal fired MDU Lewis & Clark Station near Sidney.

"Agriculture was at my front page when the MDU coal fired facility plant was ready to start looking at closing," he said. "We three commissioners battled MDU all the way through it. If we weren't in Helena in front of them, we were meeting them here and we had them in our office. It was something that was going to close no matter what we did but we wanted to make sure we got our point across." The closure of the Savage coal mine will have an impact on Savage School resources and will force Sidney Sugars to look at converting to natural gas.

Currently, the commissioners are dealing with the possibility of the test flows on the Missouri River to be conducted by the corps of engineers. "Is it a battle I think we can win? I'm not sure, but I'm not going to give up on it," Gorder said. "We have our public comments be heard. We've been there in person and we now have our attorney general, Austin Knudsen, ready to fight for it too."

Holst stated that he thinks that Gorder and the commissioners have done a good job fighting for agriculture. "We do need to fight for all of our agriculture needs around here," he said. "I worry about Sidney Sugars. Last year they were at 30,000 acres. This year I heard they were at 18,500. The writing is kind of on the wall. I think they want to close this place down." Holst spoke of the financial incentives to move acre allocations to western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. "Shane might know a little bit more about how we can keep the acres. That may be what Austin Knudsen is trying to fight for," he stated.

Holst also said Eastern Montana Meats (EMM) is a good idea. "Love your idea. Just hope you follow everything according to law," he said speaking to EMM owner Steve Lunderby who was in attendance at the forum. Holst has previously opposed the major subdivision of property proposed by Lunderby to county commissioners last year.

Richland County Sheriff

Is it the proper role of the sheriff's office to determine if laws are constitutional? How would you determine which laws are constitutional? Is it a personal judgment or would a committee make the decision? Please explain the process of deciding constitutionality.

Kyhl, running as a constitutional conservative, answered first. He wouldn't be opposed to a committee but he thinks the decisions are black and white. "Its pretty black and white when it comes to the constitution. When we are talking about freedom of speech, as far as I'm concerned it's black and white," he stated. "Everybody has their right to their opinion. I see myself as a constitutional guard for freedom, freedom of speech."

Dynneson responded by stating, "I have a duty to uphold and have taken an oath to uphold the constitution of the United States and Montana State Constitution. And I believe that the laws that are established by the legislature gives us guidelines in how to ensure that your rights are protected under those constitutions." Dynneson said those laws often need to be interpreted. "That can be difficult. So we reach out to maybe the county attorney or we research case law to help us determine whether or not the laws we are attempting to enforce are in fact constitutional and that changes all the time." Dynneson continued by stating that it isn't black and white. "We would like to think so. It would certainly make our job a lot easier. That's why it's important to have a more experienced person. A person that's willing to look beyond just the words on the page and think about enforcing the law, what kind of effect that might have on the individuals and the community."

How would you attract more people to work as a peace officer given today's issues?

Dynneson stated that currently the sheriff's office is fully staffed with deputies. "Since I took over our retention in that area has gone up significantly," he said. "We still have a difficult time finding public safety officers such as dispatchers and detention officers. It's grueling work." Dynneson said that people have to have a passion for the work and people need to reach out to them and express an interest in the jobs. "You aren't going to find that. Not right now," he said. "There just isn't the work force right now."

Kyhl believes that a person needs to have a calling to work in law enforcement. "There is a lot of people out there that have always had that interest," he said. Kyhl feels that people with more life experience could be better than officers that are 18, 19 years old. "If I become sheriff I would like to open it up. I'm a firm believer in more mature deputies," he stated. Kyhl feels that people that have gone through personal issues, including prior issues with the law, would be good deputies. "I believe that people that have gotten in trouble but have eventually learned from their mistakes would make better deputies."

Dynneson responded by stating that anyone is open to apply. "We don't discriminate against age, religion, color. I would encourage anyone out there that has a passion for law enforcement, they should do so," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that if they apply that they'll get the job." Public safety and law enforcement officers are held to a high standard. Montana law requires them to pass certifications and background checks determined by the state. "I understand that people make mistakes but sometimes those mistakes can't be overlooked," Dynneson said. "That isn't necessarily up to me. That's what the laws are."

What is the highest issue facing our county as far as crime?

Dynneson answered by saying that we have not seena significant rise in crime. "Things stay pretty steady," he said. The county is not seeing an increase in burglaries, home invasions, etc.

"Obviously we are not winning the war on drugs across the United States," Dynneson said. "Probably my biggest concern about drugs is the new influx of fentanyl across the county. It's going to have a very big impact on every community." Dynneson feels they have to work on combating the distribution of drugs. The sheriff's department works closely with the Eastern Montana Drug Task Force, FBI and DEA to relay information regarding the movement of drugs coming into and out of the community. "We are actively involved with the Stonegarden Grant which puts more officers and boots on the ground." The Operation Stonegarden Program gives grants through homeland security to provide money for overtime and extra patrols to interdict drugs moving into and out of Canada.

Dynneson's other concern for the county is problems dealing with behavioral health issues in relation to the legalization of marijuana. "I think that there is a trend we are going to see. The amount of THC in this new marijuana is as high as 30, 50 and 90%," he said. "We are going to start seeing overdoses. It takes individuals with mental illness in a direction that they end up in severe psychosis or have issues that need medication to get them out of crisis."

Kyhl feels the number one law enforcement issue in the community is drugs. "What the public is looking for is someone that is going to go out there and target and rid this county of drugs," he said. "I'm a firm believer in working with the community with what I call sheriff volunteers." Kyhl would like to get the community involved to find out where the target areas are to potentially have more patrols and person's involved in drug activity.

Dynneson does not agree with Kyhl's position. "You are not going to rid this problem. We have been dealing with it for years and years," Dynneson said. "All you can do is deal with it the best that you can." Dynneson does not feel it's the public's responsibility to get rid of drugs. "Your job as a good citizen is to not use drugs and if you see something you notify us. It isn't your job to go out there to do my job."

Kyhl countered Dynneson by saying that we all have a responsibility as residents of the county. "If we don't come together you are right. Nothing will ever change," he stated. "We are probably not going to rid it 100% but we can't just turn a blind eye."


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