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Walsh County Commission appoints member to fill spot left by commissioner-elect involved in fatal crash

Barta, a former commissioner from Pisek who narrowly lost reelection, was appointed to the board, sworn in and participated in the remainder of the Walsh County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 6

Walsh Co Commission Dec 6.jpg
Walsh County Commissioner Kristi Brintnell, Chairman Dennis Skorheim and County Auditor Kris Molde watch as Ernie Barta signs paperwork after being appointed to the commission at its Dec. 6 meeting.
Ingrid Harbo / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAFTON, N.D. — The Walsh County Commission appointed Ernie Barta, a former commissioner, to fill a vacancy on the board left by a Grafton man who decided not to take the seat after police accused him of being drunk when he crashed his vehicle just days after the election. A sugar beet executive was killed in the crash.

Barta, a former commissioner from Pisek who narrowly lost reelection on Nov. 8, was appointed to the board, sworn in and participated in the remainder of the Walsh County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Christopher Thompson, the commissioner-elect who Barta replaces, was slated to be sworn in at the meeting, but submitted his resignation on Nov. 22.

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On Jan. 19, the Federal Emergency Management Agency finalized its revised flood hazard determination for Grafton, which removed the city from the 100-year floodplain.

Thompson was charged in Walsh County District Court with driving under the influence vehicular homicide and causing an injury while driving under the influence. On Nov. 12, Thompson hit a tree while driving near Edinburg, North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

The crash killed Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association Treasurer Jason Schatzke, who was one of six passengers in the vehicle.

When a vacancy occurs on a board of county commissioners, North Dakota Century Code calls for the training board members to immediately appoint a suitable person to fill the vacancy.

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Before appointing Barta, the commission debated whether to appoint somebody immediately or open an application process for the position.

Walsh County State’s Attorney Kelley Cole recommended the commission open a public application process for the position based on precedent. In 2005, the county commission had a vacancy, and filled it through an application process. She said in her interpretation, opening an application process to search for a suitable person candidate could still comply with Century Code.

Commissioner Amy Suda agreed with Cole, but Commissioner Kristi Brintnell and Chairman Dennis Skorheim disagreed on her interpretation of Century Code.

“Nowhere in here does it say that immediately upon a vacancy that we should open it up to the public to submit applications, and that’s what bothers me,” said Brintnell. “If it said that, I’m all for it, but it does not say it. It says that we need to appoint upon the vacancy.”

The commission voted 2-1 to immediately appoint a commissioner. Suda voted against.

The commission then voted unanimously to appoint Barta because he was the candidate with the next most votes after Thompson.

Commissioner Karen Anderson was not at the meeting.

On Nov. 8, Barta received 19.97% of the vote with 1,513 votes, 60 fewer than Thompson.

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Barta said the decision to appoint him was the correct one because it listens to what people in the county want.

“The way I look at it, and my response is, 1,500 and some people must have thought I was qualified to be a commissioner and voted,” said Barta. “To me, that’s the will of the people.”

County commissioners are elected for four-year terms, but appointed members hold office until the next general election so a successor can be elected. Barta’s seat will be up for election again in 2024.

In 2018, Barta won reelection despite being charged with driving under the influence the day before the Nov. 6 election. He had been arrested Oct. 26 of that year after hitting an electric pole in Devils Lake.

Related Topics: WALSH COUNTYGRAFTON
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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