Dickinson Public Schools’ Ballot Measure Wording Unnecessary and Could Sway Votes

As many Dickinson area early and absentee voters have already learned, we have a local measure on our June primary ballot. I first learned of the measure as I was filling out my ballot this evening. I hadn’t heard anything about it this election cycle, and I doubt many of you had either.

With a hotly contested City Commission and a mayoral race, the measure is a relatively minor news item that has been largely ignored. That’s because this measure isn’t something out of left field. It’s the regular ballot measure asking if Dickinson Public School minutes should be published in the local newspaper of record. Though it’s unnamed in the measure, that newspaper is The Dickinson Press, which I worked at for more than a decade and was editor of for three-and-a-half years.

North Dakota school boards are required to regularly ask the public if it wants to continue having board minutes published in the school district’s newspaper of record. It’s generally a formality and rarely, if ever, gets voted down. Thankfully North Dakota voters are a relatively informed bunch.

But it isn’t often that the question is asked in the way Dickinson Public Schools worded its measure on this year’s primary ballot. What stands out is the suspect verbiage of the measure, which is pointedly worded in a manner that could easily sway voters and frankly should never have been allowed on the ballot. The measure reads: 

“Dickinson Public Schools has been publishing the Board meeting minutes in the official newspaper at a significant cost to the taxpayers. Additionally, Dickinson Public Schools has been posting the meeting minutes on the District’s website and will continue to post them. As a taxpayer, do you wish Dickinson Public Schools to continue to publish the School Board meeting minutes in the official newspaper of the school district?”

I can’t express how significant and inappropriate the inclusion of the lines “at a significant cost to the taxpayers” and “As a taxpayer” are on a ballot measure. This is basically like asking “Do you approve a $110 million bond measure to build a new high school because the current school is overcrowded and needs millions of dollars in repairs?”

Wording measures like this is a slippery slope — especially when it affects public information. 

So many people in Dickinson have bemoaned The Dickinson Press’ move from a five-day-a-week newspaper to a weekly newspaper — a financial decision not made locally but entirely by executive management of The Press’ ownership group Forum Communications Co. 

Yet, here we are, with Dickinson Public Schools — the largest public entity in the community — using “taxpayer funds” as a way to try and get out of publishing its minutes in the local newspaper. Without some in-depth research, I can’t tell you how much money the school pays The Dickinson Press to publish these minutes. But my knowledge of how much legal notices cost leads me to believe it’s a drop in the bucket of the school district’s budget. 

The board, Superintendent Shon Hocker and anyone involved in putting together that measure should be ashamed of how it is worded and that they’re even proposing such a move.

More than anything, public meeting minutes are recorded in a newspaper as a way to serve as a historic document. If I wanted to go back to 1975 and see what happened at a Dickinson Public School board meeting, I can. I would just go to The Dickinson Press or the State Library in Bismarck and ask for the dates I want to research. There, I’ll find the school board minutes. Published in full. 

Do we have any assurance that, if only published on the school’s website, those minutes will remain there forever? Of course not. Like any other record or document, they’ll eventually get pushed to the side to make room for something else. They’re currently published from 2008 to today, but any further back than that and you’ll need to go looking for an old newspaper.

There are still many people who expect to see public meeting minutes published in their local newspaper, whether they’re community watchdogs, or the elderly and old-fashioned who simply don’t use the Internet. If nothing else, it’s a worthy gesture for any public entity to assure citizens they’re not trying to hide anything. 

The funny thing is, The Press has actually been publishing the Dickinson Public School board meeting minutes on its website along with the physical newspaper. So the school is already getting a two-for-one deal. We didn’t do this when I was there. We should have. This is a good change. 

I have hope that the vast majority will vote “Yes” and force Dickinson Public Schools to continue publishing its school board meeting minutes in The Dickinson Press. North Dakotans shouldn’t allow a single public entity to take any steps to halt the publishing of public information in community newspapers of record.

Democrat Out of Race for State Senate

A New England man who planned to oppose Republican state Sen. Kelly Armstrong in November’s election has withdrawn his name from the ballot.

Democrat John D.W. Fielding said Thursday that his job as an employee of the Transportation Service Administration prohibits him from pursuing political office.

Fielding was nominated by his party to challenge Armstrong in District 36 last spring. The party chose not to put up a challenger in his place after he dropped out, said Dean Meyer, chairman of the District 36 Democrats who is running for state House of Representatives.

“It was a pretty close deadline,” Meyer said. “We’d had a hard time finding the first line of candidates, so there really wasn’t much we could do with that short time.”

Fielding said he learned he couldn’t pursue public office in an email he received from the TSA about election rules for employees. Federal government employees are prohibited from holding partisan political office, a law that dates back to the Hatch Act of 1939.

“I kinda need my job,” Fielding said with a laugh.

Fielding said he was working as a geologist in the oilfield before the drop in oil prices caused the Bakken’s significant slowdown. He said he wants to stay in the area because his children want to graduate from New England High School.

… I knew it would have been an uphill battle, but I thought there was information that should be out there and voters should know instead of voting the party line like most people do.”

“Family has got to come first,” Fielding said.

Fielding admitted he faced an uphill battle against Armstrong, who isn’t just a state senator but also chairman of the North Dakota GOP. He said, however, that he has had the opportunity to bring attention to issues faced by voters and added that he believes Armstrong hasn’t represented his constituents well.

“I had issues with the way the state handles the oil industry in general, basically from a position of weakness rather than strength,” Fielding said. “… I knew it would have been an uphill battle, but I thought there was information that should be out there and voters should know instead of voting the party line like most people do.”

Meyer said Fielding dropping out of the race creates more of an uphill battle for he and fellow House candidate Linda Kittilson, who face incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Schatz and newcomer Luke Simons.

Simons beat out incumbent Rep. Alan Fehr in the District 36 GOP nominating process.

“It does make the race a little tougher for the other two of us to not have anyone else ahead of us on the Senate side of it,” Meyer said. Armstrong said Thursday that despite running unopposed, he’s still putting in the campaign legwork for not only himself but Schatz, Simons and other Republican nominees he represents as party chair. “Even though I’m running unopposed, I think I’ll be working just as hard,” he said.

Murder or Accident? Beach Man’s Attorney Claims Shooting of Friend Was Accidental

BEACH — A late-night combination of “doing tricks” with a pistol and drinking whiskey turned deadly for a Beach man, according to testimony during a preliminary hearing Thursday in Southwest District Court.

Richard Young, 24, of Beach, died on June 10, four days after his friend, Gabriel Castro, 23, also of Beach, allegedly shot him in the head with a 1911 .45-caliber pistol on or around June 6 at Young’s residence.

After initially telling Golden Valley County Sheriff’s officials that Young shot himself, Castro confessed to an agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation on June 24 that he had pointed the gun at Young and fired it, claiming it was part of Young’s coercing him to perform a “trick” with the pistol. Castro was then charged with murder, hindering law enforcement and providing false information to law enforcement.

Castro’s court-appointed attorney, Kevin McCabe, argued his client stated in his confession that the shooting was accidental and, because of that, the murder charge should be dismissed.

Golden Valley County state’s attorney Christina Wenko, however, argued there was intent, as Castro had admitted in his confession that he handled the gun, pointed it at Young and pulled the trigger moments after Young called Castro a derogatory term.

“When he was called a (expletive) your honor, he decided to take other action,” Wenko said. “That’s when he rose up, he pointed that weapon, he pulled the trigger and then he was left with the consequences of his actions, which he attempted to conceal from law enforcement.”

Judge Dann Greenwood upheld the murder charge, a Class AA felony, and moved the case forward to further hearings following a short back-and-forth between McCabe and Wenko over the state’s definition of murder.

However, the judge dismissed the Class C felony charge of hindering law enforcement because of wording in the North Dakota Century Code that states the charge can only be levied against a person if they’re hindering law enforcement’s efforts involving another person. Greenwood upheld Castro’s charge of providing false information to law enforcement, a Class A misdemeanor.

BCI Special Agent Timothy Helmer said Castro and his girlfriend, Brenna Miller, initially gave false information to Golden Valley County Sheriff’s offi- cials about the circumstances of Young’s shooting and eventual death as he described the events of the case during nearly an hour of testimony.

Helmer was brought into the case by the Golden Valley County Sheriff’s Office about two weeks after the shooting and about 10 days after Young’s death. From there, he said he began to piece together evidence — including findings supported by the state Medical Examiner’s Office — that showed Young’s death was not from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, as Castro and Miller initially told authorities.

An autopsy showed the trajectory of the bullet and its point of impact in Young’s head were not consistent with a self-inflicted wound, Helmer said. He also said there was evidence of bullet slugs and skull fragments in the home’s kitchen, where Young was allegedly standing when he was shot.

Helmer said, according to Castro’s confession and his interview with Miller, that the night started off innocently as Castro and Young drank whiskey and the three watched the movie “Deadpool.” He said the scene was described as “relaxed” and “joyous.”

But shortly after Castro and Miller arrived, Young began brandishing the .45-caliber pistol

— which he’d eventually be shot with — and began showing the couple “tricks” with the gun, including one where the gun user can “give the perception to someone that the gun is loaded but it’s not loaded.”

Castro allegedly said in his confession that he was attempting to perform that trick when he shot Young, but he also said Young coerced him into firing the pistol and that he was conflicted about pulling the trigger in that the moment. Castro’s confession stated he pulled the trigger and included details about seeing Young in the gun’s sights about three to five feet away from Young — information that was consistent with the state Medical Examiner’s Office findings.

While the minutes following Young’s shooting remain unclear, Helmer said, he said Miller stated in an affidavit that after shooting Young “Castro dropped the gun, grabbed a black T-shirt and attempted to wipe his prints off the gun. After he attempted to wipe his prints off the gun, he also attempted to collect the three drinking glasses that were present in further attempts to conceal the prints on the glasses.”

Castro and Miller then allegedly left Young’s residence, got in Miller’s vehicle that was parked on the street “and that’s all the further they got,” Helmer said.

Helmer said Miller eventually called 911, and law enforcement and first responders arrived. Helmer said authorities reported finding Castro attempting to “render aid” to Young, who was taken to a Bismarck hospital by medical helicopter.

Wenko argued that the charge should be murder because Castro “caused the death of another human being under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he shot Young. McCabe argued that Castro did care.

“There’s nothing extreme about this,” McCabe said. “They were two friends who were playing with a gun. This simply was an accident. It went off. He didn’t expect it to go off. He was purely hoping and praying that it didn’t go off. That’s not extreme indifference to the value of human life. That’s an accident.”

The next hearing in the case has not been scheduled.

‘Critical’ Witness in DSU Foundation Case to Plead Fifth Amendment

A key witness in the state’s case against the Dickinson State University Foundation is invoking his Fifth Amendment right by refusing to testify. Parrell Grossman, attorney with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office told Southwest District Judge William Herauf.

Grossman, representing the state Thursday during a request for summary judgement hearing, said the “very critical” witness “has a lot of key information” and could incriminate himself through testimony. However, he did not name him.

The announcement caught Judge Herauf off guard, and he expressed surprise at the news.

“He knows more about anything that went on here than anyone else,” Grossman added. “He’s certainly entitled to do that to the extent that what he might say could result in criminal charges.”

Grossman added there are other witnesses beyond the man invoking the Fifth Amendment who have also given the state “some resistance” in request for testimony.

The announcement came after Herauf denied a motion for summary judgement requested by First International Bank and Trust of Watford City, an intervener in the case, regarding the validity and priority of debts owed to it by the DSU Foundation.

Herauf’s denial pushed all further arguments in the case to a scheduled two-day hearing Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, though Jon Brakke — the attorney for First International Bank and Trust — expressed concern. Grossman agreed that it wouldn’t be enough time for Herauf to sufficiently hear the entire case and that it could require more than a week.

The judge agreed and said the hearings will stretch out as long as they need to.

Herauf said he has found the case against the DSU Foundation to be entirely unique in North Dakota case law, as there are no true precedents.

“I’ve spent some sleepless nights on this and I’ve spent many hours reading the statutes,” Herauf said.

Herauf said while he wants the case to have an amicable conclusion in which both the defendants, plaintiffs and intervening parties can all reach reasonable outcomes, he’s doubtful that’ll happen.

“One side or the other is not going to be happy with how this comes out. That’s a concern I have,” he said.

He also expressed concern for the DSU Foundation donors, many of whose money cannot be accounted for by either the state-appointed receiver or Brady Martz accountants, saying they trusted their money to the foundation without any real ability to protect themselves.

“Then the DSU Foundation did a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t work out … and now we have this problem.”

Column: Time to Take Western ND Drug Crime Seriously

Over the past two months, I’ve been listening to and reporting on stories involving the rise in drug use and crime in western North Dakota — mostly here in Dickinson.

In early July, I reported that the rise in drug activity has coincided with the drop in drug prices in our area. Methamphetamine that was selling for $3,000 during the height of the Bakken oil boom is now going for $800 on the street, one of our area’s lead drug investigators says.

Meth, heroin and cocaine. It’s all out there, too. Every day.

Adding to the mix is the incredibly dangerous and deadly fentanyl, a drug so bad it has caught the attention of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and other leaders in Washington who are proposing legislation that would make it illegal for the substance to enter the United States.

Along with that, I reported about how gang members — both street gangs and biker gangs — have made their presence felt in Dickinson and the surrounding areas, and are directly tied to the rise in drug crime. The Country Boy Crips, the Hells Angels, the Sons of Silence. They’re all here in some way, shape or form.

Most of us tend not to see any of this happening. This is the activity that lurks mostly in the shadows. Still, we need to be aware that it is indeed happening.

So much that we’ve even, often regrettably, stopped considering some of it news.

Cases in Southwest District Court involving meth, heroin and cocaine were once a big deal to our newspaper. When I first took over as editor more than three years ago and in years prior to that, when those type of cases came up, we reported on them. Now, they’re mostly relegated to our daily Police Blotter section and only the bigger drug crime cases are followed into court.

There’s simply too many drug crimes taking place in our area to justify complete coverage. Plus, most of the major drug arrests get bumped up to the federal level almost immediately, making them difficult to follow from arrest to conviction. Still others plead out for jail time.

Leaders of the Southwest Narcotics Task Force and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation say drug crime here is worse than ever, and they’re constantly faced with new challenges on how to fight it.

Earlier this month, the leaders of our area’s task force introduced themselves to the Dickinson City Commission, who listened for 15 minutes to the stories of challenges faced by our law enforcement, and how the task force’s staff can only handle the worst of the worst problems coming through our area.

They’re on track to make fewer drug arrests this year because they’re focusing primarily on the big drug deals.

That means they’re less concerned about petty drug users, and are more concerned about catching dealers — many of whom have gang ties that often reach all the way to Mexico or Canada.

The task force is concerned that even when they are able to add more staff, the problems will keep stacking up. And it’s not just them. Our local police and sheriff’s departments, state attorney’s offices, and as far up as the U.S. District Attorney’s office are all slammed with problems related to drug crimes in some way, shape or form.

Next Tuesday, many of our city and legislative leaders and several behavioral and public health professionals who deal will attend a state-sponsored Opioid Symposiums being held Tuesday in Bismarck.

It’ll be a unique venue for them to network and to learn more about how to combat the rising drug use and crime.

Whether it’s marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroin or fentanyl, the point needs to be driven home that there’s a drug culture in western North Dakota that’s here to stay. It’s growing and it’s bringing a gang culture with it. It’s time we start looking at it seriously and do something about it.