Wind farm controversy drives likely first township recall in North Dakota
BISMARCK — Division over a once-proposed wind farm has led some township residents in Burleigh County to petition the recall of township officers, in what might be the first such recall in North Dakota.
The Morton Township election is set for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the Moffit Community Hall. Morton Township is about 20 miles southeast of Bismarck, directly west of Moffit.
Supervisor Daymon Mills and Clerk/Treasurer Mary Malard are subject to the recall. Reasons given by petitioners are Mills "not representing the will of the electors, serving his own interests and violating open meeting laws" and Malard "failing to perform the duties of the clerk/treasurer office effectively."
They both dispute the petitioners' reasons but acknowledged the recall is likely rooted in issues related to the wind farm proposal.
People associated with the recall say the effort, begun in March, stems from the Morton Township Board's management of the proposed Burleigh-Emmons Wind Farm, a 70-turbine project proposed last year in the township but ultimately bought by another developer and moved.
The Burleigh County Commission had assumed Morton Township's permitting authority for the project, as all three township supervisors at the time, including Mills, were participating landowners in the project.
Karen Macdonald, who leads the recall committee, alleged violations of open meeting laws and "behind-the scenes deals," such as a meeting related to hiring an attorney, in the township board's management of the wind farm proposal as reasoning for the recall effort against Mills and Malard.
"The wind farm certainly brought the worst out on a lot of people," Macdonald said.
Another supervisor who was on the board at the time of the wind farm dispute is not eligible to be recalled, owing to timing of his term. Another supervisor on the board at the time has since not been reelected.
That person was replaced in March by Dennis Agnew, who also is a recall committee member, a situation he acknowledged is "a bit odd." However, "I'm also a constituent," he said.
Agnew said the township board "overlooked" some residents' concerns regarding the wind farm when it was proposed.
"I think that people, once they're on an elected board or an elected anyplace, you should be representing your whole constituency, not just picking one or the other and going gung-ho on one and not on the other," he said.
Agnew and others involved in the recall say the wind farm divided township residents.
Opponents decried environmental risks and reduced property values. Supporters lauded prospective revenue from the project and the jobs it could create.
Mills acknowledged the election could cost him his seat but noted the revenue the project could have generated. He also acknowledged his potential benefit as a participating landowner.
"Sure, I was going to get money from it, I'll admit that, but so were about 20 other people if it would have went through," he said.
Malard said the recall committee is "making stuff up."
"There's just a lot of hatefulness and whatever, I guess. I don't know," she said. "It doesn't really matter to me. What happens, happens."
Township elections are different from city, county and school elections in North Dakota. They occur as a physical meeting of township residents governed by a moderator and judges appointed by voters to canvas votes. There is no early voting or absentee ballots.
The election could be the first township recall administered under North Dakota's recall statute.
"My recollection is we haven't had a recall under the North Dakota law relating to recall that pertains to a township," North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger said. "That probably is due to that township government and the way they do their elections is something very unique, in and of itself."
Township residents could call a special meeting to resolve board issues rather than go through a recall, said Jaeger, who consulted the state attorney general's office for legal guidance on township recall procedures.
"In 30-plus years of doing this, I've never run across it before," said Tom Moe, legal counsel for the North Dakota Township Officers Association. He called Morton Township's election "very rare" and "unique."
There is no specific legal provision for township recalls, but a statutory process is outlined for political subdivisions. The 2021 Legislature likely will have to adjust state law for townships, Jaeger and Moe said.
"The existing recall laws just do not match well with how townships are run," Jaeger said.
North Dakota has about 1,300 townships, 1,000 of which are organized, according to Moe.
It's unclear who might succeed Mills or Malard if they lose the election for two-year terms. Agnew said there might be some write-in candidates.
He expects "a very good turnout," perhaps 50 voters like in the last township election.