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ND sheriff fights back against county board's effort to oust him

McKenzie County sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - The McKenzie County sheriff is asking a judge to block an attempt by county leaders to remove him from office.

Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger argues in a court petition filed this week the McKenzie County Commission has overstepped its authority, and he's seeking to block the board's action to remove him and suspend a lieutenant.

"I do not believe the board has the authority to sanction me for its perception of my alleged and unsubstantiated poor job performance, improper behavior or failure to perform my duties," Schwartzenberger wrote in an affidavit filed in Northwest Judicial District Court.

Commissioners voted unanimously last week to draft a petition to the governor to seek Schwartzenberger's removal, citing an investigation that found bullying and retaliation tactics in the sheriff's office. The commission will meet Monday, Oct. 24, to review the petition.

Schwartzenberger says in the affidavit he has had "significant difficulties" with the commission since taking office in January 2015 and claims members have unlawfully interfered with his personnel decisions. He also alleges the commission may have broken the state's open meetings law on four occasions when it discussed the personnel matters.

Commissioners cited an investigation by The Village Business Institute that found evidence of threatening, intimidating and other controlling behaviors used by Schwartzenberger and Lt. Michael Schmitz.

The commission also ordered Schmitz be placed on administrative leave, but Schwartzenberger wrote he has taken no disciplinary action against Schmitz and he argues the commission's action is unlawful.

County Commission Chairman Richard Cayko said Wednesday the commission disagrees and believes the board is responsible for all county employees.

"Our goal is to make sure that we protect the employees," Cayko said.

Schwartzenberger was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly using a county credit card to charge about $1,000 in unauthorized expenses during a trip to Las Vegas. Some of the allegations of bullying and retaliation relate to witnesses involved in that case, according to The Village investigation. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and has said, "the truth will prevail."

Ward County also is in the middle of an ongoing process to consider removing Sheriff Steve Kukowski after he was charged with misconduct in connection with the October 2014 death of an inmate.

Kukowski's criminal trial is scheduled for Jan. 3 and the removal hearing is scheduled to begin Jan. 17 at the Ward County Courthouse in Minot.

It's rare for a North Dakota governor to remove an elected official from office.

In 2001, then-Gov. John Hoeven removed Richland County Sheriff Harlan Muehler and Commissioner Dave Paulson for misconduct. Those removals were prompted by a citizens petition after the county settled a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Former Gov. George Sinner, who served from 1984 until 1992, ousted two sheriffs during his first term — Griggs County Sheriff Vernon Fuglestad for serving invalid eviction papers, and Grand Forks County Sheriff Gordon Taylor, who was arrested three times for drunken driving within five years.