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Burleigh County Commission votes down straw poll on refugee resettlement

Adding a ballot question asking whether the county should continue accepting refugees for resettlement was supported by some residents who wanted to bar new refugees at a contentious meeting a month ago.

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The Burleigh County Commission debates a proposed ballot question that would have asked residents whether the county should continue accepting refugees for resettlement at a meeting on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — The Burleigh County Commission voted down a motion Monday, Jan. 6, that would have put the issue of refugee resettlement on the June ballot.

The proposed nonbinding ballot question asking whether the county should continue accepting refugees for resettlement was supported by commissioners and members of the public who wanted to bar new refugees at a contentious meeting a month ago. At that four-hour meeting, the commission voted 3-2 to continue accepting refugees, but had the decision gone the other way, it would have made the county containing North Dakota's capital city the first local government in the country to prohibit new refugees.

Monday's vote fell along the same divide as commissioners Brian Bitner and Jim Peluso voted in favor of adding the question to the ballot, while commissioners Mark Armstrong, Kathleen Jones and newly minted chairman Jerry Woodcox voted against it.

Bitner said he proposed putting a question on the ballot after several members of the public asked him to do so. Bitner and Peluso said there was "no harm" in adding the question as long as it wouldn't cost the county a lot of money.

Jones said tacking on the additional question could come at a five-figure price if it meant adding an extra page to the ballot. She also said it doesn't make sense to add a ballot measure because it would not be legally binding.

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"A straw poll will not change legally anything that we've already done," Jones said. "My suggestion to the constituency is if they feel so strong, then they should look at putting together a statewide (ballot) initiative."

Armstrong said residents upset about the commission's December vote also have the recourse of recalling commissioners. Woodcox added that the commission will revisit the issue at the end of September anyway, "so a straw poll would do very little good."

The December meeting garnered national attention and more than 500 people filled the cafeteria at Bismarck's Horizon Middle School to show support for one side or the other. Monday's meeting attracted only about 50 members of the public, who were not permitted to give input on the proposal.

The measure approved last month caps the number of refugees to be resettled in the county at 25 over the next year. Last year, 17 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and eight from Ukraine were resettled in the county, according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center. Prior to the December vote, Cass and Grand Forks counties declared they would keep accepting refugees.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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