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William "Spud" Murphy has decided not to seek re-election to the Grand Forks County Commission. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Grand Forks County Commissioner to step down after 28 years

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When William “Spud” Murphy retires later this year after 28 as a Grand Forks County commissioner, he likely will smile, say a few words — mostly to thank everybody else for his long career — to those gathered at a modest reception, shake a few hands, and then quietly walk out the door and head back to his farm near McCanna, N.D., where he’s lived pretty much all his life.

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That’s the understated style the 82-year-old Murphy has maintained throughout his public life, which began some five decades ago when he served as an Agnes Township supervisor and on the board of the McCanna Farmers Union Elevator. He also served two terms on the Larimore School Board.

In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the North Dakota Senate. At the time, opponents campaigned on the notion that one person should not serve on both the County Commission and in the Legislature.

He lost to long-time Sen. Duane Mutch, a conservative Republican and Larimore businessman, and a friend.

Murphy decided not to run for re-election this year for another four-year term on the County Commission.

“There’s not much to say,” he said. “I served with a lot of good people. We got some things accomplished, but I can’t take credit. It took people working together.”

Rural commissioner

Murphy has carved his career by looking out for the interests of his neighbors living in rural Grand Forks County, as well as county employees.

“Spud is a rural commissioner, for the rural people,” said Richard Onstad, who retired last month as county highway superintendent after more than 44 years with the county. “You couldn’t find a better commissioner. He listened to everybody. He never made a harsh judgment quickly. He thought everything out.”

Murphy is proud of some of the commission’s accomplishments over his career, including the county’s recovery from the Flood of 1997, the transition from several elected offices to appointees for all county offices except commissioners, state’s attorney and sheriff, and for putting the county on what he considers a solid financial foundation.

After the flood

After the old county office building flooded in 1997, county government moved to Larimore, where it was housed in the Masonic Lodge for more than two years, until the County Office Building opened in 1999.

“The essential services were back up and running — in Larimore — in a matter of days,” said Murphy, crediting Dean Dahl, the county’s information systems director, for moving the county’s mainframe computer system from Grand Forks to Larimore.

“I remember stringing some wires to a building, an old clothing store, on the corner across the street,” he said. “That was the court.  We were hooked up with the state for whatever payments had to be made. It went quite smoothly.

“Most of us were there on a daily basis, to assist if there were issues, especially that first month.”

Reorganization

Discussions about transforming county government began in 1991, shortly after Commissioner Gary Malm was elected to his first term in office.

However, it took until 2002, when voters approved the plan to convert several county department heads from elected officials to appointees.

“In the end, it worked out very well for us,” Murphy said.

First, he said, it allowed the County Commission to hire people who were professionally trained for those jobs, rather than relying on election results. Secondly, it eliminated the election process, which he said intimidates some potential qualified candidates.

“Some people just don’t like to get out in the public and campaign,” he said.

Today, only the County Commission, the sheriff and state’s attorney are elective positions.

Foundation

The county survived a controversial period in the mid-2000s, over the construction of the new Grand Forks County Correctional Center.

The county faced several issues, including overcrowded conditions and failed inspections at the old jail in downtown Grand Forks, as well as a $16 million new jail rang up a $500,000 deficit in its first year of operation.

Murphy reminds anyone who asks that the jail construction project was completed on time and under budget, and that today, the correctional center is operating smoothly.

He also believes county taxpayers have some things to look forward to, as well.

All five of the county’s 20-year construction bonds are on track to be paid off within the next 11 years, including a $2.9 million and a $2.6 million bond for the County Office Building, and a $1.9 million bond for the county parking ramp.

“The county’s in pretty good shape,” Murphy said. “And with those buildings, it should be for many years to come.

The county also is close to signing a 50-year lease with the federal government for 217 acres at Grand Forks Air Force Base for the Grand Sky Unmanned Aircraft Systems Business Park.

“That’s going to an exciting time for the county, and a great thing for the county,” he said.

What’s next?

Murphy, who has attended thousands of commission and committee meetings in his 28 years, and devoted countless hours to traveling around the county and beyond, meeting with friends and neighbors, doesn’t have any big plans after he retires from public service.

“I haven’t thought about it much,” he said. “That’s still a few months down the road. Looking back, it does seem like it went fast, seeing all the changes in the county.”

Arvin Kvasager, who served on the County Commission for 18 of Murphy’s 28 years, said Murphy may not seek the limelight but he’s leaving quite a legacy.

“I think he’s one of the finest county commissioners that I have ever dealt with,” he said. “And I, at one time, was chairman of the state county commissioners organization, so I’m familiar with a lot of them. He’s kind, gentle and good.”

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Kevin Bonham
Kevin Bonham covers news from northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native, who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for nearly 30 years. 
(701) 780-1110
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