ARNEGARD — A sharply divided city council in western North Dakota voted Wednesday to fire both of the city’s police officers, a move an attorney representing the two men characterized as retaliation and an abuse of power.
The Arnegard City Council voted 3-2 to fire Police Chief Troy White Owl and officer Travis Bateman, with the mayor casting the decisive, tie-breaking vote. The move comes after months of conflict and weeks of discussion about a possible separation agreement. Council members Josh Moody and Lowell Mosby voted for motions dismissing the two, and council President Bryan Bjornstad and council member Bryan Hilbers voted against them. In both cases, Mayor Virginia Elliot voted to fire the pair. In Arnegard’s council form of government, the mayor only votes to break a tie.
Bismarck Attorney J. Michael Geiermann, who represents White Owl and Bateman, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the firing.
“The action of the City Council in discharging the Arnegard Police Chief and Police officer is a clear abuse of power on the part of the Mayor and two members of the Council,” Geiermann wrote in the statement. “Neither Chief White Owl or Officer Bateman have been presented with any documentation which could in any way justify the Council’s action to discharge. No reasons were given for the discharges. Both White Owl and Bateman have grievances which were pending before the Council which have never been acted upon. The discharge today is direct retaliation for filing criminal complaints by the Arnegard Police Department against two members of the City Council who voted with the Mayor in favor of the discharge. It is obvious the Mayor wanted to clean house before the election on Monday.”
In October, Bateman filed a charge of failure to transfer a title, a class B misdemeanor, against council member Mosby. On Friday, March 1, McKenzie County State’s Attorney Ty Skarda filed a motion to dismiss that charge, citing prosecutorial discretion.
Moody, another council member, was charged with violating liquor laws by allowing an underage person in a bar in March 2017. He was given a deferred sentence and the charge was later expunged.
Elliot, who was elected mayor in June by a vote of 35-31, is facing a recall election Monday. She is being challenged by Jeffrey Kindel, who she defeated in June.
Council members Hilbers and Bjornstad both spoke out against the firing during the meeting.
Hilbers said there was nothing in the personnel files for either Bateman or White Owl to show they needed to be fired. He also warned of the possibility of legal action, saying state law prohibited retaliating against employees.
Arnegard, about 40 miles south of WIlliston, has a population around 90.
Hilbers asked Elliot, Moody and Mosby why they weren’t recusing themselves in the matter, saying the three all had personal involvement with the police department.
Hilbers said he had recused himself when an issue involving his daughter came before the council.
“I’m not certain why any of you haven’t done the same,” he said.
Bjornstad, who attended the meeting by phone, asked the other members of the council to delay a vote on the issue. He said the council hadn’t done enough to address complaints from the employees.
“Our actions today may put the city in financial peril,” Bjornstad said, warning of the possibility of a lawsuit from Bateman and White Owl.
Bjornstad said he was upset the city had become so dysfunctional. He said in the case of White Owl, the real issue was a lack of communication between Elliot and the police chief, and that he had offered to mediate but that hadn’t happened.
Bjornstad praised Bateman’s work, and said there was no documentation that he’d done anything to hurt the city.
“I’m totally against this and that’s all I have to say,” he said.
Moody said the decision on whether to fire the two had been coming since a meeting between City Auditor Juelie Bancroft, White Owl, Elliot and Bjornstad.
Video from that meeting, which took place in city hall, was played at a city council meeting in October. The 20-minute video showed Elliot accuse Bancroft of not communicating with her and Bancroft and White Owl accuse Elliot of being threatening or hostile to some of the city’s employees.
White Owl left the meeting before it ended, and demanded any communication from Elliot come through Bjornstad.
That video led to the creation of a committee to look at the city’s employment policies. That committee wrote a memo criticizing the actions of Bancroft, White Owl and Elliot, but recommended no further action be taken.
In February, Bancroft, Bateman and White Owl presented the council with a grievance reiterating many of the complaints brought up in the video.