Dispute over removal of McKenzie County Sheriff heads to court

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WATFORD CITY, N.D. - It’s been two weeks since McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger asked the court to stop the McKenzie County Commission from asking the governor for his removal, and both sides were in court Monday.

It’s a battle between two elected parties that has come down to the legal system.

“It should have been referred to the sheriff. He should have had an opportunity to deal with them. It should not go outside of his office,” says Michael Geiermann, Schwartzenberger’s Attorney.

Earlier this month, Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger filed a complaint to stop the commission from petitioning the governor's office for his removal. He says commissioners overstepped their authority by making unlawful and unenforceable personnel decisions. He went on to say the commission doesn't have the authority to hire or fire employees on his staff, but the county disagrees.

“To allow the sheriff to investigate his own actions, which are at questions, would be an absurd and ludicrous result,” says Todd Schwarz, McKenzie Co. Acting State’s Attorney.

This case stems from an investigation earlier this month that found cases of bullying and retaliation from Schwartzenberger and Lieutenant Michael Schmitz. Schwarz told the court that sheriff's department employees are county employees. He went on to say it was legal to file the petition since it came from the state's attorney's office and not directly from the commission.

“The board of county commissioners have to look into this because they have to protect other county employees. Not just other county employees, but from elected officials as well,” says Schwarz.

But the Geiermann disagreed, saying it wasn’t Schwarz’s decision to file the petition.

“You have a client of the state’s attorney’s office requesting them to get this petition ready. Then they say bring it back to us so we can look back at it to make sure it’s accurate. That is a direct action by a county commission, by a client telling their lawyer to accomplish a task,” says Geiermann.

Schwarz told Judge David Reich the county commission has no choice but to petition for the removal of an elected who doesn’t follow the law.

“If an elected official decides to allow criminal or civil liability to attach to a county and the commission has to sit back a pay the bill?” says Schwarz.

Additional documents will be filed by both sides before the judge makes his decision.