Courthouse conflict ruffles small county’s serenity

BOWBELLS An allegation of hostility in the sheriff’s office is disrupting the usual peace in Burke County.

The Burke County Commission addressed the concerns surrounding the office at a meeting Monday. Two of the county’s three commissioners who were present took no official action but scheduled another meeting for July 15.

The concerns came to a head recently with Sheriff Michael Cude’s decisions to dismiss a secretary, stating she took leave beyond that permitted, and to discipline a deputy for leaving sensitive records unattended.

With regard to the fired employee, the commission issued the following statement Monday:

“According to the minutes of the Burke County Board of Commissioners dated June 17, 2014, Chairman Ryberg, with the concurrence of Commissioners Nelson and Sellie, authorized one week of paid administrative leave for Sue Christiansen, employed by the Burke County Sheriff’s office. A special meeting was called for June 24, 2014, to address this issue, but was canceled due to the hospitalization of Chairman Ryberg and the absence of Commissioner Nelson. At that time, the paid administrative leave was extended by Chairman Ryberg. Ms. Christiansen returned to work on July 2 at the direction of Chairman Ryberg since reports and paperwork needed to be caught up and completed.”

Whether commission chairman Allen Ryberg had authority to extend the administrative leave for Christiansen has been called into question.

Cude said he also questions whether the commission had authority to grant leave to an employee of his, but he did not object to the decision. He said he attempted to work with Christiansen, including offering her administrative leave to deal with family issues.

However, he said, he was not told that Ryberg extended the leave but rather was led to believe from statements that Christiansen reportedly made to the local newspaper that she had resigned.

“I was completely left out of the loop,” he said.

Christiansen told The Minot Daily News that the commission granted her administrative leave after she voiced concern about a hostile work environment. The administrative leave was granted to give commissioners time to look into her concerns. Christiansen returned to work July 2 and 3 before being dismissed.

Christiansen said when other employees at Monday’s commission meeting were asked if they felt threatened by Cude, every woman present assented. Ryberg, contacted after the meeting, confirmed the response.

Cude denied creating a hostile environment and noted he has little contact with other courthouse employees.

“I am just trying to do my job,” said Cude, who called the dissension a distraction created by those who haven’t wanted him as sheriff.

Cude was appointed by the commission May 27 to replace Barry Jager, who resigned to become the county’s grant coordinator. Commissioners Terry Nelson and David Sellie selected Cude, then a deputy, over the objections of Ryberg.

Cude polled 189 votes to 246 for former deputy Shawn Brien and 107 for deputy Jeremy Grohs in the June primary for Burke County sheriff. Cude and Brien advance to the general election in November.