JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of Refineries And Bridges

There is news this week on several fronts involving threats to the North Dakota Bad Lands. There are some long documents to read. Here’s a summary. More when I get done reading them.

THAT DAMN REFINERY

First, Meridian Energy’s proposed oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You probably read that the Dakota Resource Council and its legal ally, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the North Dakota Public Service Commission asking the PSC to assume jurisdiction over the siting of the refinery before construction can begin.

On Monday, the PSC accepted the two groups’ complaint and agreed to serve the complaint on Meridian. What that means is that Meridian will now have to respond to the request for a full site evaluation. I’m pretty sure it also means that it cannot start construction of the refinery (Meridian has its Permit to Construct for a month but have not started any work at the site yet) until the PSC hears both sides of the story. The PSC has heard the environmental group’s side in the 17-page complaint, and now it will l get to hear Meridian’s case, arguing that it is not subject to PSC review.

And then, the PSC will decide whether to accept jurisdiction over the plant and require Meridian to undergo a full site review to decide if this is a good place to put a refinery. If it does that (and I won’t be surprised if it does), expect Meridian to go to court and challenge the PSC’s ability to do that. If Meridian doesn’t, expect ELPC to go to court to try to get a judge to order it done.

ELPC’s complaint asks for a cease and desist order, keeping Meridian from going ahead. I’m not sure if Monday’s motion grants that order. I’m waiting for a call back from an attorney to answer that question, but I’m guessing it does. I’ll keep you posted.

THAT DAMN LITTLE MISSOURI BRIDGE

The second long document I have to read is the long-awaited 80-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Billings County’s proposed Little Missouri River Crossing north of Medora, which was released a couple of weeks ago.

I say long-awaited because public hearings on this project were held in the summer of 2012, and we’ve been waiting more than six years now to see this document. No one seems to know what the holdup was, but no one was complaining, except the Billings County Commission, which has shelled out millions of dollars to the engineering firm KLJ for it.

The EIS identifies the proposed location of the new bridge — about 12 miles north of Medora — and explains why this is the best location for a new Little Missouri River crossing. The location is on private land — the historic Short Ranch — in spite of the fact that Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said unequivocally at the public hearings on the project in June 2012 that the bridge would be built on public land.

Apparently KLJ couldn’t find a place to put it on public land. It will be interesting to hear Arthaud try to explain what happened. It will also be interesting to hear him explain why no one has bothered to even contact the Short family to let them know what is going on. The bridge is proposed to cross the river just downstream from the Short’s home place, within eyesight of the ranch headquarters, and no one from the county or the engineering firm has even bothered to talk to them.

The release of the EIS also triggers a new round of public hearings, scheduled in Bismarck and Medora. The DOT ran some huge, 25-column-inch ads in the Bismarck and Medora papers a couple of weeks ago advertising the public meetings, scheduled for next week, in Bismarck and Medora. But then, with no public fanfare, DOT changed the dates to the following week with just a short notice buried deep on the Billings County website.

So here’s the deal. The Medora hearing is now scheduled for 5 p.m. (MDT) July 23, in the Medora Community Center. The Bismarck hearing is at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel in North Bismarck at 5 p.m. July 26.

These hearings are to gather public input on the bridge project. If you don’t like the idea of another bridge across the Little Missouri, in the middle of no goddam place, you should go to one or both of these hearings and make your feelings known. You should probably read the EIS before you go. You can find links to it here.

THAT OTHER DAMN BRIDGE

The third thing in the news this week is a notice from Bureau of Land Management that it is “seeking public comments regarding an application to authorize an existing single-lane ranch bridge over the Little Missouri River, with an associated access road, in Dunn County.”

You read that right. An application to authorize an existing bridge.

This is the bridge I’ve written about before, built by rancher Wiley Bice, west of Killdeer, on BLM land without BLM permission. The BLM knew nothing about this bridge on its land until I told them about it last year, even though it had been there for a few years. Bice also planted alfalfa on BLM land without permission.

In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the application Bice submitted for this bridge, but even though the government is compelled by law to give me that application, it refuses to do so. Now I’ve received a letter asking me to comment on an application I have not seen.

I’ve pretty much lost patience with the BLM. Noted author Ed Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. A friend of mine in Montana called it the Bureau of Leasing and Mining. Both were pretty accurate. I know the BLM has been busy with an oil boom in North Dakota, although it hasn’t been booming so much the last couple of years, but it is apparent to me that it doesn’t even go out and look at its land to see what is going on.

I’m pretty sure no one had looked at the parcel that Wiley Bice built his bridge on — and planted alfalfa on — and built a road on, for more than five years. They’re the Bureau of Land MANAGEMENT. How can it MANAGE our public lands if it never goes look at it to see who’s abusing it?

Anyway, according to this letter, if you go to this website you will find all you need to know — not really, just all they want you to know — about this project, and how to comment. You have until Aug. 13 to respond. I have no idea what will happen after that.

Well, actually, I kind of do. The BLM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (a little bit cheaper version of the document Billings County did for their bridge) on the project, and then tell Bice to go ahead and build his bridge. Oh, wait, it’s already built. Never mind.

In a separate letter I found a copy of Tuesday, North Dakota BLM manager Loren Wikstrom writes that the alternatives being considered in the EA are:

  1. Take no action (leave the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields on the land as-is). This would not achieve the project purpose, but the BLM will analyze the effects to serve as a baseline;
  2. Remove the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land.
  3. Sell or exchange the affected public land to the adjacent landowner;
  4. Authorize the bridge, road and pond through rights-of-way, and the alfalfa fields through a lease; and
  5. Authorize only the bridge and access road through a right-of-way, remove the pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land. In the event a right-of-way for the bridge and road are granted by the BLM, the site would still remain inaccessible to the public, via road, due to the lack of public roads to the site.

Loren has already told me that No. 5 is their preferred alternative, and that they’re not looking to make Bice  tear down a bridge that cost a couple of million dollars. He’s also told me they are making Bice pay for the cost of the EA and the reclamation. No big deal to Bice. As I wrote here earlier, he sold his oilfield trucking company for about $100 million. This is small change for him.

So I wouldn’t waste time writing letters to the BLM about this. It’s a done deal. A rich guy builds a bridge on public land, gets his hands slapped and lives happily ever after. That’s how the Bureau of Land Management manages your land.

Anyway, those three things are a pretty good indicator that there are still plenty of threats to North Dakota’s Bad Lands. So many it’s hard to keep track. I’ll try to write about each of them as things progress. Somebody has to keep an eye on these bastards.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Missouri River Reverie

My sister and I slipped away Thursday for a Missouri River kayak trip, on a perfect blue sky, windless day.

We launched at Washburn, N.D., with her son and his girlfriend, their first kayak trip on the big river. The current at the Washburn boat landing seemed a wee bit intimidating, but as soon as we were under way, it was clearly going to be a smooth float.

Because of the high water, there are not as many sandbars as in previous years, however, we did find a nice, little sandy beach for a break.

Although I’ve canoed and kayaked many lakes, including several trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, rivers are where my heart is happiest, and we are blessed to live on one of the finest rivers in the world, with clean water that runs in our section of the river mostly through prairie, thus does not suffer the severe effects of agricultural run-off. Right now, the water is very cold and we could only keep our feet in the water for short stretches.

Near the north border of Cross Ranch State Park, on the Nature Conservancy land, we spotted two adult bald eagles with two juveniles, right on the water’s edge, in the big cottonwoods. They just watched us float on by.

My kayak mascot, Baldy (which perches on my desk when I’m not on the water) was happy to see her kin.

Yellow warblers, spotted sandpipers, and swallows were all about. We spied on mama ducks (mallard, wood, and mergansers) with ducklings and a few Canada geese gathered with 14 goslings hugging the bank as we floated by.

We disembarked at the Sanger boat ramp, closed to boats because of the high water, thus all to ourselves (other than an extremely chatty camper at the adjacent campsite), and enjoyed cold libations. All in all, a perfect river day.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Who Wants To Invest In A Refinery? Here’s How You Can Do It

I wrote here a couple of weeks go about the beginning of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, created by Congress in 1947, and about the proposed oil refinery that threatens it, a refinery that has now been issued a permit by the state of North Dakota to build the dang thing.

It’s been 70 years since Congress declared that this place in the North Dakota Bad Lands should be protected forever as a national park. Now this California company, Meridian Energy Group Inc., a startup company with no experience building or running a refinery, says it’s going to build a refinery just three miles from the park, alongside the road that runs into Medora.

I want to look at this more carefully. I don’t trust them.

On Jan. 27, 2017, Meridian Energy Group Inc. issued what it called a “Confidential Private Placement Offering” which began:

“Meridian Energy Group, Inc. (‘Meridian’or the ‘Company’) is a closely-held South Dakota corporation that will construct and operate the Davis Refinery, a 55,000 barrel per day high conversion crude oil refinery on a 715-acre site in Billings County, near Belfield, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken formation.”

Don’t be fooled by the “South Dakota” in there. They might be incorporated there for tax purposes, but these guys are from Texas and California. And pay special attention to the number 55,000. That’s important. I’ll talk about that in a minute.

And don’t be fooled by the words “Confidential Private Placement Offering” label on the prospectus. I went digging around the Internet and found it for myself, although I bet Meridian is not happy about that, and it may disappear pretty soon, unless the word “confidential” is just another sham put out there by this sleazy company — more about shams in a minute, too.

The first thing you notice in the prospectus, right there in the third line, is that Merdian is selling stock in a refinery that is going to process 55,000 barrels of oil per day. Somebody at Meridian didn’t do their homework. When North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak and her fellow commissioners heard about this, they said, “Wait a minute. North Dakota state law says if you are going to process more than 50,000 barrels per day, you have to come to us and let us do a comprehensive site review to determine if that is really a good place to put an oil refinery.”

“Oh, dang,” Meridian responded. “That was a mistake. We didn’t mean 55,000. We meant 49,500 barrels per day. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.”

Except that the prospectus is still there, online, selling stock in a refinery that Meridian says is going to process 55,000 barrels per day.

So in spite of that, as I pointed out here a week or so ago, there will be no site review (as of now), which if one took place, would probably determine that this is NOT a good place to put a refinery.

Dang!

Our Health Department has decided that the unproven technology planned for this refinery might — just might because there’s no way to know until it is built and operating — meet federal air quality standards (this is North Dakota, after all, and we’ll plant big wet kisses on the ass of any oil company executive who shows up here with a fat checkbook). So I guess there’s nothing left to do but watch a refinery go up beside Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Except there is one other possibility. I said earlier I don’t trust Meridian. And I’m not alone. I’ve had more than one person mention in casual conversations, including some people in pretty high positions, that this whole deal sounds suspicious. The project has a price tag of close to a billion dollars, but the stock offering is for only $30 million. Now that Meridian has the permit, it has to find a bank willing to lend it at least three-quarters of a billion dollars. Again, as I mentioned, on unproven technology. Would a bank really do that? What’s the collateral on that if this falls through? A refinery that doesn’t work?

I asked Gov. Doug Burgum if he wouldn’t mind asking his State Securities commissioner, Karen Tyler, to take a look at the prospectus and see if they think this is all on the up and up. I mean, the state does have some responsibility to help protect investors in big deals like this in our state. Apparently he did that. Here’s what his spokesman Mike Nowatzki told me the other day:

“Commissioner Tyler informs me that Meridian is utilizing a federal securities registration exemption under Regulation D Rule 506(c) of the 33 Act. This federal exemption requires that they only accept investments from Accredited Investor — income of $200,000 to $300,000 or net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence.  The exemption largely pre-empts state securities regulatory authority. The Securities Department can require that Meridian put the department on notice that it is soliciting and selling in the state (Note: Meridian has done that), and Securities’ anti-fraud authority is preserved, but it does not have the authority to opine upon and set requirements for their offering documents.”  (emphasis added)

Well, how convenient. Is there any loophole in the law this sleazy company won’t find?

Would I be surprised if I learned down the road, in a few months, that this company never really intended to build an oil refinery here? No, I would not. In fact, I’d be willing to bet all my shares in the company that there’s at least a 50-50 chance this whole thing is a big stock scam designed to make some quick bucks for a few executives and board members.

On the very first page of the “confidential” prospectus, there’s a line that says the total stock offering is for $30 million, but up to 25 percent — $7.5 million — can be used for “cost of issuance,” including “compensation paid to employees of Meridian.” From what I can tell from its website, that might be about a dozen or so people on the “management team” and a few clerical staff dividing up $7.5 million dollars.

But then it also says, “Management’s Discretionary Control over Proceeds — Although the Company anticipates that it will apply the net proceeds of its financing as described herein, Management will have complete discretionary control over the utilization of the funds and there can be no assurance as to the manner or time in which said funds will be utilized.”

So that management team can pay themselves way more than $7.5 million. It can use it all. Good grief. Who would invest in a company like this? Ummmm, maybe somebody looking for a tax write-off?

Well, if it’s a scam, too bad for the investors, but good for us. Except I’m not willing to take a chance. I’m going to keep talking and writing about it. Because if Meridian is serious, and we fail to stop it, shame on us. It will the most egregious example of failed leadership in the history of our state.

I hope Gov. Burgum doesn’t want that to be his legacy.

P.S. Here’s an “Important Notice” from page 3 of Meridian’s “confidential” offering:

“This memorandum contains certain information of a highly confidential and proprietary nature. The receipt of this memorandum constitutes an agreement on the part of the recipient hereof to maintain the confidentiality of the information contained herein or any additional information subsequently delivered in connection herewith. Prospective investors who accept this memorandum or become aware of the information contained herein must understand and comply with the extensive federal and state securities law restrictions placed upon their ability to disclose information contained herein to others or to participate in or otherwise effect or facilitate any transactions relating to any securities of the company. Prospective investors who cannot comply fully with such restrictions should not review the information contained herein and should immedialtely (sic) return this memorandum to the offeror.”

Yikes! Well, golly, I’m not a prospective investor, so I guess I can share that much with you, but I won’t tell you anything else that’s in it because I don’t want to take a chance on going to the pokey. But if you’re interested, and maybe want to invest a buck or two (and if you make 300 grand a year and have a million bucks in the bank you’d like to gamble), just click here and you can read it yourself. Oh, and if it’s disappeared by the time you read this, don’t worry — I’ve got a PDF. Just send me an e-mail and I’ll send it to you.

This story is an edited version of a story that appears in the July 2018 issue of Dakota Country magazine.  It’s a magazine you should be reading. You can subscribe here.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Republicans Raising Taxes In North Dakota? Yep, They Did That

Wait a minute.

Wait A Minute!

WAIT A MINUTE!

What the heck is going on here?

The North Dakota Legislature raised your taxes, and everybody’s cheering!

The cheerleaders?

Republicans: Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger.

Democrats: Sen.. Heidi Heitkamp, Tax Commissioner candidate Kylie Overson.

The chant: “A victory for North Dakota’s retailers!”

Screw that.

OK, I’m going off on a rant here.

I’m talking about last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states (including North Dakota) can collect sales taxes from Internet retailers. So now, states that have a law in place can immediately begin collecting sales tax on the books we purchase from used booksellers, or shoes we buy from Zappo’s, or a CD from Amazon, or printer ink cartridges we buy from Canon, or refrigerator filters we buy from Sears.

North Dakota has such a law. It’s a pretty new one, thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 2298 in the 2017 Legislature, which said that if the Supreme Court should ever rule in favor of allowing states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases, North Dakota will do it.

In the North Dakota Senate, all 47 senators — 38 Republicans and nine Democrats — voted for it. In the House, 56 Republicans and 12 Democrats voted for it, while 22 Republicans and one Democrat voted against it. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signed it into law. That’s the law that just raised your taxes.

A major tax increase passed with not so much as a whimper. Of course, the tax increase had a “trigger” (sound familiar?): it only took effect if the Supreme Court justices said it could. They did. Last week.

The decision was hailed nationally as a “victory for brick-and-mortar businesses that have been complaining for years that they are at a disadvantage by having to charge sales taxes while their online competitors don’t.”

And the states complained they were missing out on billions of dollars in revenue. One of the newspaper stories I read about this past week quoted a fellow from something called the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy as saying, “State and local governments have really been dealing with a nightmare scenario for several years now.”

Oh cry me a river. No one is going to change their shopping habits because they have to pay sales tax — an extra 5 percent or so.

People shop online because they can get exactly what they want, which is not always the case locally, usually at a substantially lower price than if they bought it locally, and have it delivered to their door, in a matter of days.

Paying an extra 5 percent sales tax, when they’re saving 20 to 30 percent — or more — is not going to deter them.

What all these politicians who are raving about this as being a huge boon to their state’s treasuries fail to mention is that it is not big online retailers who pay these taxes.

IT’S US!

We pay them.

“This is a long overdue victory for our local retailers,” says Gov. Burgum.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Heidi Heitkamp, a former North Dakota tax commissioner and attorney general.

“I’m glad the Supreme Court was able to recognize the unfair advantage online retailers have,” said Rauschenberger.

Well, I call bullshit!

This is nothing more than an increase in the most unfair tax we pay, and it hits lower and middle-income families the hardest. Low-income families spend most of their paychecks, and yes, if they can buy products cheaper online than in local stores they do that. (Note: A lot of us old folks who don’t like driving in traffic or parking at the mall do it, too.)

But they’re not doing it because they don’t get charged taxes. You bought ink for your home printer lately? Eighty dollars at Staples or Best Buy. Twenty dollars online. That’s why people shop online. They’re not disloyal to their hometown merchants. They’re simply trying to make ends meet.

On top of all that, the North Dakota Legislature has been cutting taxes on big corporations and has slashed billions in revenue from oil companies in the past four years. That new sales tax law passed in 2017 means that a family scraping by on $40,000 a year — and there are lots of them in North Dakota — gets a tax increase. Meanwhile, that same North Dakota Legislature gave Harold Hamm’s oil company a multimillion dollar tax cut.

I’ve been arguing for years with my Democratic-NPL friends in the Legislature, to no avail, that with all the oil tax revenue we could collect, they should be introducing bills to CUT sales taxes.

“We need the revenue for schools and Medicaid,” they counter. Well, yeah, but how about getting it from big corporations and oil companies and not from poor families in the checkout line?

C’mon, Democrats. Introduce a bill to cut sales taxes. There are only 22 of you in the whole damn Legislature — and 119 Republicans. Make them vote against cutting taxes. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll be too embarrassed — or even principled — to do that.

We’ve got $7 billion or $8 billion in the bank. We’re not poor. Use oil taxes to pay for schools instead of raising taxes on moms and dads working two jobs to just put shoes on their kids’ feet.

I talked to one of the legislators who voted against SB 2298. He agreed that the sales tax hits the working class families the hardest. And he also pointed out that we have a lot of our own online retailers right here in North Dakota, and this could be a nightmare for them.

Our law says they have to collect sales taxes if they conduct more than 200 transactions a year, or have sales of more than $100,000. Well, that puts our online retailers between a rock and a hard place. First, they’re going to have to spend some money ramping up to collect the taxes and send them to the state. Then, let’s say they figure there’s no way they’re going to exceed $100,000 in sales, so they don’t charge the tax, and then right at the end of the year, they have a Christmas rush in sales and end up with 210 customers, or someone comes along and makes a big purchase, pushing them over $100,000. Now what?

Or let’s say they expect to have a pretty good year, so they charge the tax, and then end up not reaching 200 sales, or $100,000. Now what?

This whole deal just sucks. The Supreme Court decision doesn’t mandate states collect the tax. It just allows them to collect the tax. I think North Dakota shouldn’t do it. We’re already one of the richest states in the country. If we need more money, the only tax we should be raising is the tax on oil. Not a consumer tax.

Rauschenberger says he’ll collect up to $30 million a year under the new law. But not from online companies — from us. We’ll be paying it. Although those retailers are going to have to do a lot more technology and paperwork, which might mean they have to raise the prices on stuff we buy. A double whammy on consumers.

By the way, that $30 million would be 5 percent of online sales. That means North Dakotans must be spending $600 million a year online. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that. I’m wondering if the tax commissioner didn’t just make something up, pull a number out of his ass. There’s been a lot of that going around lately.

Anyway, if my choice is to pay $20 for ink for my printer online, or $80 here in town, that 5 percent tax doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. I’ll still order it online. So tell me how this ruling helps local retailers. Does that make any sense to anyone?

Well, anyone except greedy government officials, who just can’t see a downside to this?

I read somewhere that the cuts the Republicans made to the oil tax in 2015 are costing the state something like $15 million a month. So we cut taxes for those who can most afford them and increase taxes on those who can least afford them.

A victory for North Dakota retailers? Bullshit. It’s a $30 million loss for North Dakota consumers. And it really pisses me off.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — ‘I So Declare It!’

My day started out OK this morning. My pillbox told me it was Thursday — it’s always nice to know what day of the week it is right away in the morning. I had a pretty good bowel movement — for you young readers, that‘s pretty important for someone my age. I got my belt through every belt loop but one and got my shoes on without untying them.

And then it all went to hell, when I opened the paper to see the headline screaming from the front page: “Davis Refinery permit approved.”

Yikes!

I turned the paper face down on the kitchen counter so it wouldn’t be the first thing Lillian saw before she even had a sip of coffee. And then I went and sat down on the patio and sipped my coffee and looked at the beautiful, clear blue sky over North Dakota and thought to myself, “What kind of monsters would want to do this — put an oil refinery right next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park? And what kind of state regulators would permit that to happen?”

And who, at the highest level of North Dakota state government, will step in and say, “No. We’re not going to let you do that.”

Surely, Doug Burgum, you have a soul. Surely you won’t let this happen on your watch. Surely, you don’t want this to be your legacy.

Let me ask you this, Gov. Burgum:

  • Would the state of Wyoming allow an oil refinery to be built three miles from Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park?
  • Would Montana put a refinery three miles from the Going To The Sun Highway in Glacier National Park?
  • Would Alaska permit a refinery at the base of Mount Denali? Well, maybe, Alaska is an even bigger whore to the oil industry than North Dakota. But let’s not give them any ideas.

These places — Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali, and yes, Theodore Roosevelt — these national parks are our national treasures. There are only 59 of them. The federal government — our elected Congress members and senators — agreed to protect these most spectacular places in our states, passing laws that said, “We’ll take care of what’s inside these park boundaries. Now you, people of these states, you take care to not let anything mess them up from the outside.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park in America named for a president of the United States — in fact the only national park named for a person. That’s how revered Theodore Roosevelt is. He was afforded this honor because of his great conservation record, which includes setting aside more than 230 million acres of public land during his presidency from 1901 to 1909.

He didn’t set aside the land where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is today. That was done by Congress in 1947, to honor him. But he lived and ranched there and developed his strong conservation ethic there and said if it was not for the time he spent in the North Dakota Badlands, he never would have been president of the United States.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a national parks watchdog group, has suggested that the Health Department attach a condition to the permit — perfectly allowable in the law — requiring the refinery to undergo a PSC site review. Here’s a story with some background on that.

I asked an official with the Health Department a couple of weeks ago if they were considering attaching such a condition. He responded, “We will address the PSC siting review issue in our response to comments, which will be made available upon completion of the document.”

They did that. In response to comments requesting them to attach the condition of a site review by the PSC (you can take a look at the Health Department’s response here–look at Comment 3), the Health Department said:

“Imposing a condition in the permit to construct requiring PSC siting would not be reasonable because a permit to construct is intended to address air pollution-related issues, not siting issues. See N.D.A.C. § 33-15-14-02(9) (authorizing the Department to impose “reasonable conditions” in a permit to construct). Concerns regarding the PSC’s requirements must be addressed to the PSC.”

Well, that’s complete and total bullshit.

I did go “see N.D.A.C. § 33-15-14-02(9).” It says:

“The department may impose any reasonable conditions upon a permit to construct, including …” and then it goes on to list various things, like

  • 1. Sampling, testing, and monitoring of the facilities or the ambient air or both.
  • 2. Trial operation and performance testing.
  • 3. Prevention and abatement of nuisance conditions caused by operation of the facility.
  • 4. Recordkeeping and reporting.
  • 5. Compliance with applicable rules and regulations in accordance with a compliance schedule.
  • 6. Limitation on hours of operation, production rate, processing rate, or fuel usage when necessary to assure compliance with this article.

Well, I guess I could make a pretty good case that any refinery operating beside a national park could create “nuisance conditions,” for the park, but that should not be necessary. There’s nothing in 33-15-02(9) that says they cannot require a PSC review. They could certainly attach that condition and let Meridian challenge it in court, if they want to.

I am reminded of a story about Theodore Roosevelt. When he heard that yachtsmen in Palm Beach, Fla., were shooting brown pelicans for sport as the ponderous birds flew to their nests on a small island not far away, Roosevelt asked an aide, “Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a federal bird reservation?”

“No,” the aide replied. “The island is federal property.”

“Very well, then, I so declare it.”

And that was the birth of our National Wildlife Refuge system.

If there’s nothing in state law preventing the Health Department from attaching specific conditions to a construction permit, then it should “so declare it.”

Or, if Meridian wants to be a good North Dakota corporate citizen (yeah right) they could simply comply and go through a site review, like every other major energy conversion facility in our state has done, and using the best legal and scientific methods, find out if this is really a good place for a refinery.

That’s what should happen, Gov. Burgum. Those folks over at the Health Department work for you. Call them up and insist that they attach a condition for building that refinery next to our national park requiring Meridian to go through a PSC site review. As I have written here before, there is precedent for that.

Way back in 1974, in the face of a massive development of coal gasification facilities and coal-fired electricity generating plants, with the state lacking laws to regulate things like pollution and mined-land reclamation, Gov. Art Link and his state Water Commission attached a set of conditions to water permits granted to Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. and a pair of Minnesota electric cooperatives, United Power Association (UPA) and Cooperative Power Association requiring them to take substantive measures to guard against pollution and land destruction. Those conditions, later adopted by the Legislature, became what are still today, I think, the strictest land reclamation laws in the country.

The companies, of course, challenged the Water Commission’s right to attach the conditions. On behalf of the Link administration, then-State Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan asked Attorney General Allen Olson for an attorney general’s opinion on whether such conditions were legal. Dorgan wrote:

“I know that the Water Commission and the Governor are attaching these conditions in order to provide the best possible protection for North Dakotans as a result of the approval of these projects.

“The conditions are designed to make certain that developments of the type that were approved are subject to very stringent regulations in order to protect North Dakota’s quality of life.

“However, if these conditions should not be able to stand the test of a court challenge, then we are all living with a false sense of security about these conditions.

“For this reason, I believe that the Water Commission and more importantly, the people of North Dakota, should have the opinion of the Attorney General whether the imposition of conditions attached to water permits is legally binding action that the Water Commission has the authority to take.”

Olson wrote in his opinion:

“It is our opinion that the conditions on the Michigan-Wisconsin Pipeline Company and United Power Association/Cooperative Power Association Conditional Water Permits granted by the State Engineer and approved by the State Water Commission are basically valid.”

Olson then went on to say “However, as in all such cases, the courts would make the final dispositive determination as a validity.” You can look at the full exchange here.

In the end, the courts did that. Link won his battle “to protect North Dakota’s quality of life.”

North Dakota’s leaders had balls in those days. It took a special kind of courage for Art Link and Byron Dorgan and Allen Olson to stand up to the industrial giants of their day and say “Not so fast. Let’s take a good look at this and make sure we’re doing it right.”

In the end, we got a coal gasification plant, and some power plants, built under specific conditions that protected the environment. That’s the model Gov. Burgum needs to take a good hard look at.

We can have a refinery here if we want one. And I think we do. But we can put it somewhere else, down the road, not beside the national park named for the greatest conservation politician in the history of our country.

Let’s do that.

One more thing: Shortly before 7 a.m. this morning .I sent an e-mail to Mike Nowatzki, the governor’s press person, asking for 10 minutes with the governor today to talk about this. Here’s his response:

“The Governor is completely booked today with things that can’t be changed and is not available for an interview. Below is a quote you can attribute to him.

“The North Dakota Department of Health has determined that this project is expected to comply with all applicable federal and state air pollution rules and regulations and meets the requirements for a permit to construct. The project is going through the proper regulatory authorities as prescribed in North Dakota state law, and the Governor’s Office will continue to stay apprised of its progress.”

I wonder how Art Link,  Byron Dorgan and Allen Olson would feel about a response like that.

Finally, the entire document allowing Meridian Energy Group to build a refinery next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is available online. You can go here to look at it.

You can also take a look at Meridian’s response to the public comments received by the Health Department in this document. Pay particular attention to its response to comment 4(e). The company has the nerve to say that there is more pollution from the cars visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park each year than there will be from the refinery. They even built a fancy chart purportedly showing how much tailpipe emissions are coming from the cars visiting the park.

Great! There’s a way to protect the park. Keep everyone out.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Hold On A Minute There, Al, The Peeping Tom Just Got 54,000 Votes

Just 24 days ago, Will Gardner, the Republican Party’s nominee for North Dakota secretary of state, announced he was dropping out of the race after news stories surfaced about him being arrested (and convicted) for peeking in windows at women’s dormitories at North Dakota State University.

You might have been a bit hasty there, Will. Republicans apparently don’t care about things like that. Because Tuesday, 54,000 of them voted to make you the next secretary of state anyway. In fact, you got 17,000 more votes than your party’s congressional nominee, Kelly Armstrong.

So, now what?

Al Jaeger, who holds the office now and has pledged to run for re-election as an independent this fall, is sitting in his office this morning, waiting for a letter from you. Because, ironically, in order to fulfill your pledge to drop out of the race, you have to send Al a letter telling him that.

So, Will, assuming you have time today to write that short letter saying you decline the Republican Party’s nomination for secretary of state, as given to you by 54,000 eager Republican voters Tuesday, put a stamp on an envelope and take it to the post office. It should arrive in Al’s mailbox Thursday.

Unless you’re busy today, and don’t get around to it for a few days, and then you start thinking “Well, gee, 54,000 Republicans want me to be their candidate …”

So what’s Al Jaeger to do? Call up Will Gardner and say, “Hey, Will, I’ve got to get out there and get a thousand signatures on my petitions. You gonna send me that letter pretty soon?”

We’ll see. If I were Al Jaeger, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

In other election news, weird shit happened in Bismarck on Tuesday. I don’t remember the last time an incumbent Bismarck mayor got defeated for re-election — it may have happened in my lifetime here, but I don’t recall — but it happened Tuesday.

Bismarck voters chose a rompin’, stompin’ cowboy over a mayor I think they perceived as a bit of a weenie, ignoring the fact that their new mayor, Steve Bakken, has a rap sheet that includes bankruptcies, drunk driving arrests, judgments for unpaid bills and state taxes and getting fired from at least two jobs for “inappropriate behavior.” That’s the new mayor of North Dakota’s Capitol City.  Yikes!

But then, these are the same voters who chose a girls bicycle seat-sniffing window peeper as their candidate for secretary of state, so what’s the surprise? Voters in Bismarck gave the rebel Bakken 6,300 votes for mayor, roughly the same number they gave Will Gardner for secretary of state. I’m guessing they were pretty much the same people voting for the two of them.

So, as far as the Republicans being the party of “values,” forget about that. I mean, they elected a pussy-grabbing president. Not much surprises me anymore. I’d say the Democrats better get their shit together one of these days. We get the government we deserve.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — My Last Story Ever About Duane Sand (I Hope) — Redux

NOTE: I didn’t think I would see Duane Sand’s name on a ballot again — boy was I naive — but here he is, showing up on the District 47 Legislative Primary Election ballot Tuesday and duking it out with the Republican establishment, which once embraced him and ran him for Congress a couple of times. I wrote a story about  his campaign finance shenanigans back in July 2016, under the headline “My Last Story Ever About Duane Sand (I Hope).” So I thought I would just revisit that story and do a rerun here. It’s still my last story about Duane — nothing new — I’m just sharing it one more time for your reading pleasure. Or disgust.

CAMPAIGN DEBTS, WIDOWS AND CONSERVATIVES

As I have reported here before, Duane Sand’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2012 raised more than a million dollars, most of it through direct mail, using a shady Washington D.C., mail firm well-known for sending out lots of letters and keeping most of the money.

When Duane ended his short-lived 2012 campaign (he lost in the primary to Rick Berg), he was in debt to the mail house, so he kept on raising money. Or rather, they kept on raising money for him. He didn’t really have to do anything. A company called Base Connect just kept cranking out letters to conservative mailing lists. By the end of the year they hit the $1 million mark, but most of it, probably 85 to 90 percent, stayed with Base Connect and its affiliated companies.

As I explained earlier, they did everything for Duane, from conceptualizing and printing a fundraising brochure, to writing the fundraising letter, to buying the mailing lists, to printing the letters, addressing and stuffing the envelopes, affixing postage and hauling them to the post office. And picking up the mail with the responses in them, and depositing the money in Duane’s account. All Duane had to do was lend them his name. But then most of the money went right back to them in fees and mailing expenses.

There have been a lot of stories written about this company. None of them full of praise. Google them.

So when Duane filed his 2012 FEC report (actually, another affiliate of Base Connect, a fellow named Scott Mackenzie, who called himself Duane’s “Campaign Treasurer,” filed it for him), it showed that he was in debt $92,714 at the end of 2012 — almost all of that to Base Connect and its affiliates.

Duane really didn’t do much about that for a couple of years, but there’s a funny thing about FEC reports: As long as there is an outstanding debt by the candidate or his committee, they have to keep filing reports. Four reports a year, in April, July, October and at the end of the year.

So even though Duane has not been on the ballot for more than four years (he lost the Primary in June of 2012), he is still filing those reports. Or rather, Scott Mackenzie is. Each report filed quarterly between 2012 and the end of 2015 showed that debt of $92,000 to Base Connect and its affiliates.

But then on his 2015 year-end FEC report, filed in January of this year, those debts mysteriously disappeared. The companies wrote them off as bad debts. The reason: at the same time, Base Connect itself disappeared.

But the people working for Base Connect didn’t disappear. They reappeared in another incarnation: ForthRight Strategy. Same owners, same address, same phone number. Just a new name. The name Base Connect had become so notorious they had to get a new identity.

Here is what happened in Duane’s case. Base Connect and its affiliates just kept mailing and mailing and mailing, all the way through 2012, even though Duane’s campaign was over June 12, when he lost the primary. And the bills kept piling up for those mailings. Highly inflated bills. But finally the money quit flowing.

So when it was all over, Base Connect and its affiliates had raised a million dollars, and had invoices showing Duane still owed them about $90,000 for their services. Even though they had already taken almost all the money from the people who sent it in.

Well, Duane had the good sense not to pay them out of his own pocket. He outlasted them. When they shut down their business and reopened with a new name in 2015, the debts disappeared with the old name. At the very end of the 2015 FEC Report, Treasurer Mackenzie wrote: “The Committee contacted vendors to confirm the outstanding balance and was told there were no outstanding balances for Base Connect, Legacy List Marketing Inc., or Century Data Systems Corp. Therefore the balances were zeroed out …”

Just like that. Actually, it was a phony statement because Mackenzie is part of the Base Connect network, so he was just talking to himself and his partners. They all agreed there was never going to be money to collect from Duane, so they wrote it off.

But at the same time as almost $90,000 in debts to the fundraising companies disappeared, almost $60,000 in personal debts appeared on his 2015 report. $12,000 of that debt was to himself — money he lent the campaign to pay his legal bills for his North Dakota court case, which I wrote about back in April. The rest was in smaller amounts, mostly in the $2,500 range, to more than 20 people around the country. I puzzled over that for a while, until I finally put the answer together.

VIOLATIONS OF FEC RULES 

The prospect list run by Base Connect turned up some wealthy folks. Nearly two dozen people sent more money to Duane than the law allowed. In the 2012 election cycle, the limit on contributions to federal candidates was $2,500 per election: $2,500 for the primary, $2,500 for the general. A couple of dozen people sent $5,000 in separate checks of $2,500, one for each election. Except that Duane lost the primary, so he wasn’t on the ballot in the general. So he was only allowed to keep $2,500 of that. He had to return the other $2,500.

Because Duane never really saw the money, and likely never even read his FEC reports filed by Mackenzie, he likely didn’t even know there was a problem. Maybe he didn’t even know the rules.

But MacKenzie and the folks at Base Connect did. And they were careless or greedy, and not only kept the contributions, but reported them to the FEC. Somebody at the FEC was watching. And three times during 2012, Duane’s treasurer, Mackenzie, received letters from the FEC telling them some individuals had exceeded the limit, and the money had to be refunded or reallocated (by reallocated, that could mean putting some of it in a spouse’s name, for example).

So here’s what Mackenzie did: Almost everything each donor gave over the legal limit was re-listed in a new FEC report as a “debt.” In other words, if someone gave Duane $5,000, he owed them a refund of $2,500. That got listed as a debt. There were a bunch of those. Debts show up on FEC reports. And the FEC apparently was satisfied with that arrangement. A promise to pay was good as a refund, at least for the time being.

The most recent report is for the first quarter of 2016, signed by Mackenzie on April 14, 2016. In that report there are still at least 20 people who are owed money by the campaign, in amounts ranging from $300 to $5,000, all of whom donated to Duane’s campaign in amounts exceeding $2,500. The total amount comes to about $43,000.

So what’s been done is that instead of refunding the excess amounts, the campaign shifted about $43,000 to “debts” instead of “gifts.” No doubt the excess gifts went to the fundraising companies, which kept most of the money that was raised. But the company is gone now.  And guess who’s stuck for it? Yep. Duane.

Maybe Duane intends to pay them back sometime. We’ll see. He still lists a $5,000 debt to his Bismarck lawyer, Deborah Carpenter, plus the $12,000 loan he made to his campaign in 2014, for total debts to individuals now standing at about $60,000. The campaign is more than four years gone now, so raising any money from donors to pay those debts seems unlikely.

It will be interesting to see how he solves this. I almost feel sorry for him. He got taken, big time, by those Washington slicksters. They should have refunded the money to the donors immediately after the primary campaign ended in June 2012. Instead, they pocketed it, leaving Duane holding the bag. But Duane’s a big boy, and he likes playing politics, and sometimes bad things come of that. Really bad. Like a $60,000 debt.

And it HAS to be paid back because, technically, those donors gave Duane more than the law allowed, and technically, he “spent” it. Never mind that he never saw a penny of it. Friends of Duane Sand, his campaign committee, is responsible for returning excess contributions. Except there’s no money to pay it back.

If you would like an example of how he came to exceed the limits received from some donors, here’s the list on the FEC report for a lady in Georgia, Jane Pelham Doyle. Jane donated $4,375 to Duane in 2011-12. That’s $1,875 over the limit of $2,500. Here’s her giving history to the Sand Campaign:

2011-2012 Contributions to Duane Sand for June, 2012 Primary Election

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 9/6/2011 $100

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 9/20/2011 $50

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 9/28/2011 $100

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 11/8/2011 $135

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 11/23/2011 $135

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 12/19/2011 $170

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 12/22/2011 $35

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 1/19/2012 $202.50

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 2/6/2012 $203

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 3/1/2012 $203

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 3/16/2012 $250

Doyle, Jane 4/2/2012 $305

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 4/17/2012 $250

Doyle, W Pelham 5/9/2012 $305

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 6/4/2012 $100

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 6/8/2012 $458

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 6/18/2012 $458

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 7/6/2012 $458

Doyle, Jane W Pelham 8/17/2012 $458

Total in 2011-2012: $4,375

The FEC report shows that the campaign owes her $1,875. But sadly, Jane passed away this spring, on March 2, at the age of 92. I guess that’s one way to get rid of the debt. She’s still listed as a creditor on the April FEC report. Probably the estate hadn’t been settled by then. She’d only been dead a month. I’m not sure if Duane sent a sympathy card.

Most of the rest of those listed are also in their 80s and 90s. It’s a waiting game from here on out, I guess. We’ll see just how patient the FEC is about these kinds of things.

Here’s one more example. Susan Brunoff, age 87, New Holland, Pa., contributed $5,325. The FEC report shows Duane owes her $2,825.

2011-2012 Contributions to Duane Sand for June, 2012 Primary Election

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 12/20/2011 $100

Brunoff, Susan Valeria Mrs 1/16/2012 $225

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 2/6/2012 $500

Brunoff, Susan Valeria Mrs 2/28/2012 $225

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 3/26/2012 $100

Brunoff, Susan Valeria Mrs 4/13/2012 $338

Brunoff, Susan Valeria Mrs 5/8/2012 $338

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 5/22/2012 $500

Brunoff, Susan Valeria Mrs 5/31/2012 $499

Brunoff, Susan Valeria Mrs 6/14/2012 $676

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 7/6/2012 $500

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 7/31/2012 $500

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 8/17/2012 $500

Brunoff, Susan Mrs 9/13/2012 $324

Total in 2012: $5,325

OK, so you get the idea. Elderly women are being talked out of their money.

My guess is they are not all poor widows. Many are women of means. For example, Elloine Clark, the widow of a wealthy Texas lawyer who invested wisely in oil (isn’t that how all Texans get rich?), really overcontributed to Duane — she is listed as being owed $5,000 in Duane’s report. In the 2012 election, she contributed more than $334,000 to various candidates and PACs, according to FEC reports. And she gave another $311,000 in the 2014 election cycle.

And she’s still giving. She gave $100,000 to Carly Fiorina this year and smaller amounts to Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz. The widow Clark told USA Today recently she likely will focus on contributing directly to the politicians she supports rather than filling up super PACs’ bank accounts. “I want my candidate to get the money,” she said. Plus, she added, “I’m not that wealthy. The price of oil is down.”

Well, you get the picture. I thought about calling Duane and asking him how he plans to resolve this, but he’s a busy man and I don’t want to bother him. I hope he figures it all out. I’m sure it’s no fun waking up every morning with something like this hanging over your head. Still, he liked waking up in the morning when he was a politician and seeing his name in the morning papers. I guess this is the price you pay for fame.

Meanwhile, I hope someone finds a way to put those folks at Forthright Strategy (formerly Base Connect) in the pokey one of these days. They deserve it. If you want to read some shocking things, go look at their website.

Here’s a couple of examples: They ran the fundraising campaign for South Dakota U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Annette Bosworth in 2014. They brag on their website that they raised $2,031,004 (exactly) for her campaign and gave her $500,000 of it, keeping a million and a half for themselves. For former Florida Congressman Allen West they raised $2,513,304, and sent the congressman $475,379 of that. The rest went for “expenses.” There’s a whole list of these. It’ll leave you shaking your head. It did me.  Because these conservatives fall for it. The candidates mostly don’t win, but they sure have a fun time playing politics. And what the heck, most of those widows are rich anyway.

I know I said this is my last story ever about Duane Sand, but if he ever gets those debts paid off, I’ll report in.

One last note: The latest FEC report for Friends of Duane Sand 2012, which you can look at here to see what I am talking about, lists an address of 418 Rosser Ave., Suite 100, Bismarck, N.D. 58502, the same address the committee has been using since 2011. I have a friend who works in that building and who says Duane hasn’t been seen there in a while — a few years.

So I thought I’d check. Turns out the sign on the door of that office says it is headquarters for the North Dakota Right To Life Association. Duane’s moved on. Not sure what the penalty is for giving the FEC a phony mailing address, but maybe the nice folks at Right To Life are forwarding his mail for him. Easier than going through that change of address thing.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Fishing On D-Day With An American Hero

D-Day. June 6, 1944.

Seventy-four years ago today, my father-in-law, Garland Crook, got his feet wet — literally and figuratively — entering combat in World War II by going ashore on Normandy Beach.

Today, Jeff and I are going to try to keep him from getting his feet wet as we help him into the boat on the Missouri River. We’re going fishing.

Garland’s an American hero, and there aren’t many left who participated in that fateful day. I’ve asked him about it, and he’s talked about it from time to time, but he’s not eager to bring it up. Today, though, in a boat, like he was June 6, 1944, maybe he’ll feel like talking. Last time I asked him, he just said “Jim, we were a bunch of scared kids.”

Garland was 19 years old that day. He survived Normandy Beach and became a career soldier. He spent his working life in the U.S. Army, serving during three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He retired to a farm in North Dakota, then retired from farming and now lives not far from his daughter, Lillian, and me in Bismarck.

Garland loves to fish. Every summer for the past four or five years since he moved to Bismarck, we’ve gotten him in the boat. It’s not easy, for us or for him.  Every winter, over supper, I tell him we can’t wait to get him out in the boat again next summer. Every winter he says, “Jim, I’m afraid my fishing days are over.”

Then summer comes, and I call him and say, “Garland, are you interested in fishing tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’m interested,” he’ll respond, “but I’m not sure I can do it. Let me get back to you.”

The “get back to you” part takes about 15 minutes — a little longer this year because it took him longer to get out to the garage, either in his wheelchair or using his walker, to check to make sure his rods and reels and tackle box made it through another winter.

Then my phone rings and he says, “What time?”

10 a.m. today. I’ll report in.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — I’m Not Sure Why, But I’m Sticking My Nose Into The Bismarck City Election; I Guess I Just Don’t Like The Name Bakken

Over the years, I’ve been asked off and on if I’d ever consider running for public office. My response has always been the same: “You won’t see my name on a ballot until all my college roommates are dead.”

Dead men tell no tales.

A couple of my roommates are gone, but Ron and Jim and Len and Brad are still around …

Seems to me there are a few people who ought to pay attention to a theory like that. Like, um, Will Gardner …

And now there’s this fellow named Steve Bakken, a candidate for mayor of Bismarck. He seems to be kind of an angry fellow, but for a time became the darling of a group of Bismarck businessmen who have been at odds with Bismarck Mayor Mike Seminary.

Seminary and his fellow city commissioners have been tangling with home builders and developers for a few years and awhile back, those guys actually tried to launch a recall effort against him but didn’t get their act together and came up short of valid signatures on their recall petitions, after a criminal investigation into petition fraud. I’m pretty sure mayor candidate Bakken had a hand in that screwed-up effort.

My understanding is that the Bismarck-Mandan Homebuilders Association has been unhappy with Seminary and the City Commission in general over the city attempting to assess utility costs to undeveloped lots in Bismarck, among other things. They’ve tried to convince some credible members of their group to step up and run against Seminary, to no avail.

Political gadfly Bakken decided he was going fill the void and was ready to run in the unsuccessful recall effort last year. When that didn’t work, he surfaced again this year to run against Seminary in the regularly scheduled election at the end of Seminary’s four-year term. Knowing that homebuilders and developers were eager to get rid of Seminary, he approached them for support.

My friends who pay much more attention to city politics than I do say there was a lot of money at stake — the group had raised more than $75,000, and I heard from one friend it might have been as much as $100,000. If the group had given that money to Bakken, it might have been enough to get him elected.

But the group apparently did its homework and discovered a lot of dirty laundry in Bakken’s basket. I don’t know all the details, but people who seem to know this guy said his career had mostly been in radio but that he had been fired from two different radio stations for behavioral issues.

Then someone dumped a bunch of paper in my mailbox the other day, showing some court judgments against Bakken for unpaid bills, including one for several thousand dollars to Job Service North Dakota. Also included were a drunk driving arrest record and an apparent bankruptcy.

I guess the home builders group got the same documents, and just like that, I’m told, 75 grand and an endorsement from several local groups disappeared. And with that, probably his chance of getting elected disappeared, too.

The money didn’t disappear, though. With an eye to dumping their other least-favorite commissioner, Nancy Guy, the builders and developers put more than $20,000 into the campaign of Greg Zenker, one of Guy’s opponents in next week’s election. Bismarck residents have probably noticed a big jump in spending on radio and fancy electronic billboards for Zenker in the last couple of weeks. Another challenger, Mark Splonskowski, picked up a few big checks from builders as well.

Oh, and there’s a couple of other technicalities that probably ought to be pursued. First, I did take a look at the May 12 contribution reports, and Zenker lists a $400 donation from “Concrete Structures LLC.” LLC means Limited Liability Corp. I’m pretty sure corporations are prohibited from making campaign contributions, and candidates are prohibited from taking them, in North Dakota. If the form is correct, Zenker is in violation of the law, the Corrupt Practices Act, I think.

Second, there’s a form that needs to be filled out by candidates to report their campaign contributions, so we know who’s contributing to them and how much they’re getting. Starting this year, City Commission candidates need to report the total amount of money they raised, not just the contributions over $200.

Guy and candidate Beth Nodland did that. Zenker and Sponskowski used an old form and did not report everything, apparently in violation of the state’s campaign finance law. I’m not sure who is supposed to enforce that law — and what should be done about it, but if they want to be our city commissioners and make our city laws, they probably should comply with existing ones. I guess it would be up to the Burleigh County state’s attorney to pursue legal action in these two cases.

I’m told there is still a big pool of money somewhere, maybe in the bank account of the Bismarck-Mandan Homebuilders Association, to try to influence city government. It remains to be seen when that will surface, but some of it may have already gone to Zenker. To look at all the contributions records, you have to go to the fourth floor of City Hall and ask to see them. And its fishing season, and I have better things to do, so I haven’t seen all the records, just those pre-election records of Zenker and Splonskowski that were provided to me. As I’ve said many times, I’m a blogger — I don’t investigate, I speculate. Especially during fishing season.

The roots of this whole “Developers versus City Hall” scenario can likely be traced back to disputes over the location of an events center and of Bismarck’s downtown renaissance zones. A few years ago, a developer named Ron Knutson wanted a new events center up north of town in his elk pasture, but the commissioners wanted it adjacent to the Civic Center, some say with an eye to encouraging the developers of Five South across the street. Knutson lost. Interestingly, Knutson’s name doesn’t appear on the one list of big check writers to Zenker’s campaign that I did see.

The dislike of Seminary and Guy and the departing Josh Askvig has been exacerbated by the somewhat clumsy handling of the whole city utility fees issue, which I don’t understand completely and won’t try to figure out here. But I think I’m going to vote to keep Guy in office (she is the daughter of my old friend, Bill Guy, after all), and vote for Beth Nodland to join her (she is the daughter of my old friend Irv Nodland, and the sister of my old friend Chad Nodland, after all). OK, OK, they both deserve to be there on their own merits. I just can’t resist raising the hackles of my feminist friends once in a while.

The bottom line in the mayor’s race is this: There are a whole bunch of builders and developers who really wanted to dump the incumbent mayor of Bismarck, but picked the wrong horse (Bakken) to run against him. Worse, they failed to find a horse of their own and had no choice but to just back away to save their reputations. For better or for worse, it looks like we get Seminary for four more years. I think we could do worse.

I don’t really know Seminary. I’ve had one encounter with him in his years as mayor. It was a chance meeting at a social event, and it happened early last winter, about the time the homeless crisis erupted in Bismarck when the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House closed its doors to homeless people as winter was coming on. In the course of our conversation, I said “Mike, you need to go and dig deep into the city’s budget and find some money for homeless people.”

Not long after that, the city found $10,000 — not enough, but it helped — to support the United Way’s efforts to provide winter shelter. I applaud him for that. For that reason alone, I’ll vote for Seminary and Guy next week. But they better drop that stupid idea of putting sidewalks in Highland Acres. We’re doing just fine over here without them.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Walk On The Wild Side — In The Bad Lands

While life at Red Oak House here on Missouri River is filled with many blessings and much happiness, as frequently as possible we refresh our spirits with visits to the Bad Lands of North Dakota, which we did early this week, joined by our daughter, Chelsea, and Paul and Joe, our friends from Arizona.

We met on the veranda of the Rough Riders Hotel to make a plan. After a quick lunch, determining that Paul had not been to the Chateau de Mores since his southwest N.D. childhood days, we went there to tour. Joe had never been. Thus it was a good way to reflect upon the founding of the town of Medora and the colorful characters who lived there in the 1880s. When Chelsea was in college, she worked at the Chateau for the summer, as part of the interpretative staff, in period costume. I’m pleased at how much she remembers.

It was a perfect late May day and the Bad Lands are very green right now. There is an array of wildflowers in bloom, including Prairie Ragwort and, my favorite, Prairie Smoke.

We spent the remainder of their two-day visit hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park trails and driving the loop road. It was very interesting to observe the effects of the recent controlled burn, which although it might seem extreme due to the fire’s proximity to the road, close observation revealed a mosaic pattern that mimics the natural prairie fire process, effecting a relatively small percentage of the Park’s total acreage.

We observed many grazers taking advantage of the fresh green native grasses that had quickly sprouted in the wake of the fire, including a fine bull elk.

Day 2 found us taking a four-mile hike to the Petrified Forest on the park’s west side, a place neither Joe nor Paul had seen, and it was another pleasant day with temperatures in the high 70s. I pointed out to my companions that we were in the officially designated wilderness within the park. A couple of bison bulls were spotted and we gave them a sufficiently wide berth.

Although I’m fairly knowledgeable regarding prairie wildflowers, this one (right) had me stumped (although I thought it was likely a vetch). In all of the miles we hiked, I saw only this one large clump of this specimen. Later, I checked with friends, crowd-sourcing this on social media. One of my friends identified it as a Narrow-leaved Milkvetch (Astragalus pectinatus).

The dominant birds of the day were Lazuli buntings, bobolinks, meadowlarks and yellow-breasted chats. While we hiked, I taught the others some about the birds and plants and confessed to being rather a dunce when it comes to rocks.

While we hiked and chatted, we learned that our friends had never been to the Elkhorn Ranch. By Godfrey, this must be solved, we said, and off we went. The ticks were thick there and a very fine specimen of a bull snake slithered across the trail. We were pleasantly surprised to find a few other visitors who’d made the trek.

Then, it was time to return to Medora, for pizza, followed by a farewell to our good friends and trail companions, until their next visit to North Dakota.

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand–though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset.” — Theodore Roosevelt