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Steele County attempts to fill key positions in continuing turmoil

FINLEY, N.D. – Steele County is trying to hire an interim county auditor just weeks before the Nov. 4 General Election.

Auditor Elisha Washburn resigned last month amid staff turmoil that County Commission Chairman Randy Richards said has been ongoing since last fall.

Washburn and former County Tax Director Emily Wigen are on the ballot for county auditor.

Wigen was fired in March, after the County Commission learned that some data – property valuations and assessments – had been removed from county computers, according to Richards.

The county paid about $4,500 earlier this year to an independent firm to investigate the missing data, he said. Information from that probe was forwarded to the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

“A lot of valuations and assessments are missing,” Richards said. “It was determined it was erased.”

Since her firing, Wigen has filed two complaints against the county with the North Dakota Department of Labor, according to Richards. One of the complaints has been dismissed. The other is still being processed, he said.

Meanwhile, the County Commission agreed Tuesday to review with its state’s attorney its policy on publishing meeting minutes.

Washburn, who attended the meeting, complained that commission minutes she wrote before resigning in August had been modified by county officials prior to publication.

She also complained about behavior of some county employees at a recent County Commission meeting, asking that those employees be reprimanded.

“It’s my reputation that’s on the line,” she said.

County Commissioner Jane Amundson has been filling in as county auditor on a part-time basis, until the county can get more help.

Jack Davidson, county auditor in neighboring Nelson County, has offered the services of his office to provide some assistance until a replacement is appointed or a new auditor takes office early next year.

Amundson, who has a full-time job in addition to her county duties, also has been contacting recently retired county auditors in North Dakota to see if they might be interested in helping the county. However, she said, her efforts so far have been unsuccessful.

The deadline for applications for the county auditor position is Sept. 12.

The same deadline is set for anyone interested in applying for a potential new position of county administrator.

“We’re just looking at the possibility of creating the position,” Amundson said.

Steele County, which has a Home Rule charter, only elects three county officeholders other than the five county commissioners. Those positions are sheriff, auditor and treasurer.

The county tax director position already has been filled.

“We’re trying to figure out the tax situation. We’re in the dark more than anything,” Richards said. “And with the budget and election, we’ve got our hands full.”