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Controversial Griggs County courthouse project forces old, new commissions to the table

Ron Halvorson, left, former Griggs County commission chairman and now chairman of the Griggs County Building Authority, confers with Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook who is also construction superintendent for the Building Authority during Wednesday's meeting in Cooperstown. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
From left; Helen Fossem, Shirley Norgard Short and Cindy Anton listen to discussion during Wednesday's Griggs County Building Authority meeting in Cooperstown. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Troy Olson is the new chairman of the Griggs County Commission. Wednesday's meeting of the Building Authority marked the first time that the former and current commissions met. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — The old and new Griggs County Commissions met face-to-face Wednesday for the first time since the successful October recall of all five commissioners about a controversial courthouse construction project.

The venue was a meeting of the Griggs County Building Authority, comprised of the former commissioners, which is in charge of the $3 million construction project, which also includes an emergency operations center.

But the new County Commission failed in its bid to have one of its members, John Wakefield, appointed to an open seat on the building authority. Instead, the authority appointed Rick Cushman to replace Dennis Halvorson, who resigned.

“I guess they’re not interested in having one of us on the authority,” County Commission Chairman Troy Olson said after the meeting.

Wakefield reportedly was stranded in Florida because of inclement weather Wednesday and could not attend the meeting.

The new and old commissions have had a strained relationship since the recall election, which had complicated issues such as the flow of money to pay construction bills.

“We need to get together with the Commission to see if we can get some of these things paid,” said Building Authority Chairman Ron Halvorson, who was County Commission chairman before being defeated in the election.

Olson, in turn, questioned why the county is being asked to pay bills for the EOC portion of the project from its general fund, when the county received a federal grant of nearly $1 million.

Sheriff Robert Hook, who also is serving as construction superintendent for the building authority, said the county will be reimbursed through the grant, which is being administered through the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

“They want to get that money distributed, but it’s got to be done according to regulations,” he said.

Recall campaign

The recall campaign was launched this past spring, after the county decided to proceed with building the courthouse and EOC despite voters rejecting three different building proposals in separate elections during the past two years.

After the third defeat, the County Commission initially set a fourth election in March 2013.

However, the board later rescinded that action and instead formed a building authority, an independent nonprofit corporation that can issue tax-exempt bonds without a public vote for the construction of a building that is then leased back to, and eventually owned by, the political subdivision.

The former County Commission reasoned that the county risked losing the $1 million EOC grant if the courthouse was not built.

School districts, cities, counties, park districts and other political subdivisions lack the power to form a building authority. But individuals — including elected officials — may form a nonprofit building authority that isn’t subject to the same limitations on building and construction as a school district, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem stated in a 2008 opinion.

Normally that doesn’t pose logistical problems, because the same people serve on both boards. However, in this case, all elected county commissioners were replaced by the recall.

“Originally, we declined to be part of it,” said Olson, the new County Commission chairman.

But he, for one, has changed his mind.

“I think it went well,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting. “When you’re doing a project that needs to be done jointly, you need to communicate. The nuts and bolts of how this works needs to be in compliance.”

The new courthouse and EOC are expected to be completed this spring.

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, 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 more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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