JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri Bridge: Let The People Decide?

The folks out in Billings County in the North Dakota Bad Lands might get a chance to vote this fall on whether they want their county commissioners to use their power of eminent domain to condemn some of their neighbor’s land to build a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River and roads connecting it to state highways. Or they might not.

Those Billings County commissioners considered that risky move at a meeting Tuesday in Medora, almost mine months after they voted not to use that power to condemn land on the historic Short Ranch, thinking it not very neighborly.

But it’s an issue that just won’t go away, spurred on by a new commissioner, Lester Iverson, and the county’s appointed state’s attorney, Pat Weir, who have taken up the battle formerly led by longtime commissioner Jim Arthaud, whose defeat in 2020 by new commissioner Dean Rodne was at least partly caused by the bridge issue.

Commissioner Mike Kasian, the only member of the three-person commission who has been on the board more than a year and a half, brought the idea of having his constituents vote on the matter at Tuesday’s meeting. Citing the project’s nearly $20 million price tag — about $4.5 million of which has already been spent on studies, including an expensive environmental impact statement) — Kasian said, “I didn’t run for this job to put the county in debt.”

If the county’s residents want it, Kasian said, let them tell us at the November election. Except it’s not that easy. Weir and County Auditor Marcia Lamb, upon advice from both the North Dakota Attorney General’s office and the Secretary of State’s office, pointed out that they could put it up to a vote, but it would be advisory only. Weir went so far as to say, “My advice as the county’s attorney is to not put it on the November ballot.” Lamb said it would have to be on a separate paper ballot from the county’s regular General Election ballot, and they’d have to use a separate ballot box to count them.

The thing is, they both pointed out, because it would only be an advisory vote, after the election the commissioners would still have to make the decision on whether to proceed.

That made Rodne and Kasian, who both voted against using eminent domain to build the bridge last summer, a little nervous. They hedged when audience members who support the bridge quizzed the two whether they would vote to do that if the county residents approved the project. Rightly so because it all depends on what the ballot question would be.

Weir pointed out that’s where it gets sticky. What do you put on the ballot?

  • Should we have a bridge?
  • Where should it be?
  • Do you approve eminent domain to build the bridge?
  • Do you approve the county spending another $15 million to build a bridge?

It was pretty clear from the discussion at the meeting that there really are no alternatives to the chosen location on the historic Short Ranch, about halfway between Medora and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The county’s EIS identified it as the chosen spot. So far, the county seems to think it has the legal right to go ahead if it wants to but demurred in the face of a lawsuit filed aqainst the county by the Short family. The lawsuit has been dropped, for now, because commissioners backed off on using eminent domain, and both Kasian and Rodne say they won’t do that.

Unless, maybe, the county’s voters tell them to do it.

So, it seems to me just about the only way for the commissioners to get a clear message from the voters would be to ask, “Do you approve of the Billings County Commission using eminent domain to condemn land on the Short Ranch to build a new $15 million bridge over the Little Missouri River?”

Want to bet on the outcome of that ballot question?

The commissioners themselves were pretty vocal at Tuesday’s meeting. Kasian was adamant that he won’t vote to proceed without a countywide vote. But Iverson challenged that saying, “We are elected to make decisions. Having an advisory vote sets a bad precedent. Are we going to have the people vote on everything we do?”

Rodne said he had gotten a phone call from Dave Short, the scion of the Short family, and the Shorts said there’s no way they will accept an offer from the county. So the only the way the bridge could happen is with eminent domain. Rodne asked, “Is that what we want to do in Billings County? Fight with our own ranchers?”

And so, after a half hour or so of discussion, including pretty vocal input from several audience members (at least one of whom, I hear, is planning to run for a seat on the commission in this year’s election), the commissioners decided to table the issue for “a couple of months.”

Kasian is up for election this year and has indicated he plans to seek re-election. But I was told after the meeting there are at least two people, and maybe more, with petitions in hand to run for Kasian’s seat, including a couple who might support the bridge and the use of eminent domain. If they file their petitions by the end of next week, their names will be on the ballot in the June primary election. From there, the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election in November.

If Kasian loses in the primary, and it looks like the November winner might be a bridge supporter, it’s likely they won’t bother with an advisory vote on the bridge in November, since holdover Lester Iverson has indicated he’d vote for using eminent domain to take the Short Ranch land.

So DON’T expect the commissioners to take up the issue again until their July meeting, after the primary. But DO expect Billings County voters to ask the candidates where they stand on the bridge issue. As I said, the issue was one of the reasons longtime bridge champion Jim Arthaud lost his seat in 2020.

And remember, the Short family is adamantly opposed to a bridge through their ranch, so DO expect them to continue to fight the project in court, if they have to, until all their legal options are exhausted. That could take years, not months. Don’t plan any shortcut trips through the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley for a while.

One last little sidebar. I’m getting mixed messages on whether the state of North Dakota wants to get into the middle of this and take it on as a state project. Both Gov. Doug Burgum and his Department of Transportation Director Bill Panos have been personally involved in discussions with commissioners. That drew the ire of Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel, who supports the bridge but is opposed to the state taking over. I told Pat to get ready to set up a roadblock if he sees any big yellow machines with “State of North Dakota” on the sides coming down a gravel road toward the river. He might just do that. He’s a fierce protector of his county, and he’s an ornery cuss sometimes.

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