BISMARCK — Bismarck City Attorney Jannelle Combs said she has been targeted with social media harassment and a public campaign to get her fired for her role in the enforcement of local COVID-19 precautions.

In emails and social media posts dating back to at least late October, Combs said some Bismarck locals have lobbied for her to be fired for fulfilling her responsibilities as city attorney. An escalation of this harassment, including some threats of physical harm, over the last few days prompted Combs to file a police report on Saturday, Dec. 5.

“The thing is with bullies that if you don’t stand up to them, if someone doesn’t, they’re just going to keep doing it, and that’s not right for city employees,” Combs said on Monday. Combs is the second Bismarck-area official to be targeted with harassment over enforcement of COVID-19 precautions, after Renae Moch, director of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, reported similar responses to her work in September.

"They're just going from one target to the next," Combs said.

Criticism of Combs generated momentum over the weekend in a private Facebook group called North Dakota Freedom Defenders, which includes more than 5,000 members. One now-deleted post invited members to “pack the room, hallway, and overflow” a City Commission meeting this Tuesday to air their grievances against Combs. “Anyone who is sick of the control and manipulation of Ms. Combs NEEDS to attend this meeting!” wrote the post's author. The post received more than 100 likes and prompted a thread of complaints about Combs in the comment section. A moderator of the group did not immediately respond to a Facebook message seeking comment for this story.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

One comment with a small number of likes suggested “blanket parties” in response to Combs’ city attorney work, seeming to reference a hazing or corporal punishment tactic associated with military groups that involves restraining a victim under a blanket and hitting them repeatedly. A separate #FireCombs hashtag started on Facebook in November, according to posts still public on the platform.

Gloria David, a spokeswoman for the city of Bismarck, said the harassment of Combs has recently “risen to a new level.” According to Combs, city commissioners and Mayor Steve Bakken have received emails calling for her firing dating back to the institution of a Bismarck mask directive in mid-October.

Combs noted that she has taken a collaborative approach to working with local businesses, checking in on owners after receiving reports about them to help them get into compliance, rather than reporting them to police. She said she has frequently been accused of wanting to fine or imprison people for noncompliance with masking or other pandemic precautions, allegations that she stressed are false.

“The bottom line is this is a government employee who has been doing the job that has been set forward for her by the City Commission and the executive orders set forward by the governor,” David said.

Combs noted that she has lately shouldered some of the more controversial pandemic mitigation jobs to take the target off of her colleague Moch, director of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health. In emails, phone calls and social media posts earlier this fall, Moch was called “a tyrant and a Nazi” for performing her duties as the coordinator of the local COVID-19 task force.

Moch, an early advocate of mask mandates in North Dakota’s capital city, said it’s “ridiculous” that officials are being bullied simply for doing their jobs. Moch noted that she had never received any kind of vitriol from residents prior to the pandemic.

“What I went through was horrid and painful, and I feel bad that (Combs) is trying to endure the same things,” Moch said.

Moch also noted that she doesn’t know why she and Combs have been picked on while their counterparts in other North Dakota cities, like Fargo and Grand Forks, haven’t gotten the same treatment. However, Moch said she has heard that other local officials across the country have been harassed in the same way for recommending and enforcing public health measures during the pandemic.

Instead of persecuting an official with personal assaults, Moch said disgruntled citizens should take up disagreements with their elected leaders and “address the issue, not the person.”

And while Combs said she had hoped division and anger over masks and other pandemic precautions would subside after the presidential election, the behavior has actually ramped up since then. Taking to her own Facebook page recently, Combs asked that any members of the North Dakota Freedom Defenders unfriend her on the platform and expressed her disappointment in the community's actions.

“They’ve already done it to one of our employees, and the buck stops here,” Combs said.

Readers can reach Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com, and Jeremy Turley at jturley@forumcomm.com.