Burke County to petition to remove sheriff

The Burke County Commission plans to initiate a petition to ask the governor to remove the local sheriff, the commission chairman reported following a meeting Tuesday.

The meeting, at which the sheriff was not present, drew a number of county staff and members of the public who had questions about what’s happening in the sheriff’s office in light of three announced personnel firings or disciplinary actions in less than two weeks.

Commission chairman Allen Ryberg, Bowbells, said the commission is asking the state’s attorney to draw up a petition for removal. The county commission doesn’t have authority under state law to remove a sheriff itself.

The law allows for the governor to remove certain officials if the official is guilty of misconduct, malfeasance, crime in office, neglect of duty or habitual substance abuse or gross incompetency.

A petition against an official, filed with the attorney general, must be signed by at least 50 qualified voters of the county or 10 percent of the qualified county voters at the preceding general election for governor, whichever is least. The attorney general has 30 days to investigate and make a recommendation to the governor.

The governor then decides whether to dismiss the complaint or appoint a special commissioner to hold a hearing. The governor makes a decision regarding removal based on the hearing report. An official who is removed has the right to appeal in district court.

Sheriff Michael Cude could not be reached for comment.

The commission appointed Cude on 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 announced earlier this month that he had fired a receptionist for failing to return to work when administrative leave granted by the county commission expired. The receptionist, Sue Christiansen, said she was uncomfortable in her job, sensing a hostile work environment. The commission granted leave, which Ryberg later extended. Cude had said he was not informed of the extension. There also has been question about Ryberg’s authority to grant an extension.

This past week, Cude fired deputy Jeremy Grohs on grounds of insubordination in relation to directions provided him for handling a border incident. Grohs began collecting signatures in early July to run for sheriff. He had run in the primary but only two former deputy Shawn Brien and Cude advanced to the November election. Brien, the lead voter getter, withdrew from the race, prompting Grohs to run.

Ryberg said he has numerous concerns related to Cude, including his absence from Tuesday’s meeting after requesting that the meeting be held.

Sellie said he prefers that the people vote but understands that concerns may need to be addressed before November. Sellie said he neither supports nor opposes the proposed petition.

“I support what the people want,” he said.

Commissioner Terry Nelson, Columbus, said he is supporting the petition effort at this time, although he wants to further investigate and talk with the sheriff. He said he has been out of the area for the past three weeks so did not learn of the concerns until recently.

He said he wants to meet with the sheriff “to try to make some sense of this, but from what I heard today, it’s escalated into I don’t know what you would call it a small war.”

Grohs, who also could not be reached for comment, appeared at Tuesday’s meeting. Nelson said Grohs presented his perspective of the firing, which Cude had reported to the media in a news release the previous day.

“He felt he had been maligned,” Nelson said of Grohs.