In tiny Oberon, N.D., concern over election comes after string of city issues
Secretary of State Al Jaeger has a letter showing that Benson County terminated its elections agreement with the city after Oberon failed to provide county elections officials with ballot information. He’d also heard worries from a local citizen that the election wouldn’t be held at all.
OBERON, N.D. – The tiny town of Oberon sits just southwest of Devils Lake. Home to about 100 people, it’s like countless tiny towns sprinkled across the Midwest.
But it’s been a headache for North Dakota leaders recently, with problems on open records and elections.
In a November opinion , Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem called the city’s delay in fulfilling a public records request “a blatant violation” of open records laws. The city also blew an early 2022 deadline with state environmental regulators, submitting proof four months late that it had made a regular public advisory about high levels of manganese in its drinking water (an issue citizens already knew about that predates Randle’s time as auditor).
Wanda Randle, the part-time city auditor (and one of just two city employees) points out that this issue isn’t just on her. The prior auditor, according to Randle and her father — a City Council member — left important work uncompleted. Randle said she couldn’t fulfill the entire records request, part of which was for copies of city bills, because the previous auditor “never made a list of bills to pay.”
“I mean, what am I supposed to give (the requester), a blank sheet of paper?” she said.
Oberon is back in the spotlight this month following concern about its June 14 elections, which chose a mayor and two council members. Secretary of State Al Jaeger has a letter showing that Benson County terminated its elections agreement with the city after Oberon failed to provide county elections officials with ballot information. He’d also heard worries from a local citizen that the election wouldn’t be held at all.
Jaeger said his office couldn’t get in contact with Oberon leaders prior to the election.
And, he said, he received a photo of a sign on a door at an apparent polling place in Oberon: “Voting HERE today for the city of Oberon,” it read. “Primary elections are still held in Minnewaukan,” a city about 15 minutes down the road.
“All we know at this particular point — there was a sign put on a door,” Jaeger said in the days after the election. “That's all we know.”
The Herald investigated concerns about the election and found that Oberon’s election had baffled a county official and ultimately failed to fulfill a slew of absentee ballot requests, something a state elections official said might leave it open to legal objection. One local citizen has already said he’s filing a lawsuit over the election results.
It’s not clear how the community will handle it. The next City Council meeting is expected on Tuesday evening in Oberon’s community center. A City Council member estimated it would start at 7:30 p.m.
Oberon’s explanation for what happened on election day is unusual. City Council member Faron Stensland said Oberon chose in recent years to terminate its elections agreement with Benson County, hoping to hold its own city elections locally so nearby residents didn’t have to drive to Minnewaukan to vote for their own council members.
He said Oberon leaders had previously informed Benson County Auditor Bonnie Erickson they were terminating their elections agreement with the county. But Erickson says she never received that information.
And although Randle says she emailed the county this year noting she’d thought Oberon does its own elections, Erickson said she sent multiple emails to Randle seeking June 14 ballot information, but only got a cursory response after one of them: “Do I need to update this with the new mayor and myself?”
The decision to change the elections in Oberon raises some questions. Why would the city take on running its own election and force its residents to vote twice — once in Minnewaukan, and once in Oberon — if they wanted to fully participate in the democratic process?
“They could have stopped by (to vote) on their way out of town, because they’ve got to go right past the building that the (Oberon) election was in on their way to Minnewaukan,” Stensland said. He later added that the city didn’t want to inconvenience anyone who doesn’t have a driver’s license but still wants to vote in a local election.
Stensland said that absentee ballots wouldn’t work for those who want to vote in-person but who do not want to enter a courthouse to vote in Minnewaukan, where polling places have previously been, for fear of law enforcement.
Randle also said that she had gotten one absentee ballot request directly, which she fulfilled. But after the election, she said, she discovered “eight or nine” additional absentee ballot requests that Benson County officials had forwarded to her (Erickson checked her own records and said the number is 10).
The number is close to the total of all votes cast in the mayor’s race. Stensland said the city is seeking guidance from the Secretary of State’s Office on what to do next.
“I’m going to talk to the council and see if we’re just going to have to have another vote, or make sure that (those requests) are sent to the Oberon (email) account rather than my work (email),” Randle said.
Randle shared the results of the recent election, which she said included all write-in candidates. In the mayor’s race, Robert Santos won with nine votes, ahead of Matthew Friesen with two. In the race for City Council, there were four vote-getters: Joshua Hustad (nine votes), Kim Krebsbach (eight), Lance Schrader (two) and Bob Stensland (one).
Lee Ann Oliver, a state election specialist, points out that cities can have subtle differences, or even rather significant ones, in how they conduct elections. For example, Medora registers its voters, unlike the rest of North Dakota. And it’s not unusual for small communities to want their own polling place, instead of having to drive up the road to cast a ballot.
“It's a lot of small cities’ logic,” she said. “They don't want their polling places taken away. But that's up to the county auditor or the county commission.”
But Oliver said it’s hard to know how often that happens. That’s because election agreements between cities and counties aren’t filed with the secretary of state’s office.
Oliver stressed repeatedly during a recent interview that she can’t give legal advice. But her reading of state election law is that city governments are required to engage in election agreements with their counties — no matter what shape their elections take.
She also said that irregularities in Oberon could become fodder for a lawsuit challenging the results.
“If you misplaced absentee ballot applications, and didn't send them out, could a district court say that was fraudulent voting or counting or canvassing because these people didn’t get a chance to vote?” she wondered.
In an interview with the Grand Forks Herald, Stephanie Dassinger Engebretson, the deputy director of the North Dakota League of Cities, didn’t speak specifically about Oberon. But she did say that the role of a city auditor has grown more complex as residents have come to expect information in new and technologically complicated ways.
“If a city has a hard time finding the right person to fill that role, there is definitely the potential for issues,” she said.
The Herald was unable to reach Robert Santos, who is listed as mayor on an election-related letter Erickson sent to the city in May. Stensland, the city council member, argued that it’s difficult to run the city when Oberon is so thinly stretched. He’s handled water testing and snow removal himself.
“Our mayor has one of those jobs where he couldn’t be on the phone. I am one of the only ones (available during the day) because I work on a farm and ranch,” he said.
This is a system with limits, and Randle acknowledged as much.
“I'm going to have to talk to my employer to be like, can I take time to answer emails and phone calls during my working day?” she said. “In bigger cities, I know, it’s a full-time position. … I’m doing it after hours. I’m doing it — at 10 o’clock at night, I’m trying to look for things.”
The city is also remarkably busy right now, handling a lawsuit filed in 2020 against the Ploium family over where they can graze their cattle. That’s an important detail — Corey Ploium is a local gadfly who has spurred multiple public complaints about Oberon.
Ploium was the one who filed the records request to Oberon that the attorney general said was ignored for far too long. Ploium also was the resident who complained to the Secretary of State’s Office about the strange nature of this year’s election, and he said he’s filing a lawsuit over the election conduct in Oberon, citing problems with public notification, absentee ballots and canvassing.
“I've talked to attorneys, I've talked to state people, and they said they screwed up,” Ploium said. He believes a number of people didn’t vote in Oberon’s elections because of issues with absentee ballots, and said “there was even people that live the block way that didn't even know what's going on.”
As an Oberon School Board member, Ploium faced charges in 2020 for the misuse of school funding and was suspended from the board with three of his colleagues. He was eventually found guilty of a failure to disclose a conflict of interest, fined $1,000 and given 12 months of probation.
But Ploium said his message is bigger than him: there are problems with how the city of Oberon is running.
Randle said she’s frustrated that Ploium — who she blamed for this latest round of attention on Oberon — didn’t come to her to work things out more directly.
“Everyone's an adult here,” Randle said. “You know, help a person out. Be a decent human being and help somebody that is lacking knowledge as myself. I would like input if I'm doing something wrong, or if I'm not fully doing it correctly.”