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Testy times in a small-town election cycle

Posted 6/08/18 (Fri)

Testy times in a small-town election cycle

By Brad Nygaard and Cecile Wehrman

A series of anonymous letters and an alleged altercation at the Wildrose post office have ratcheted up the drama surrounding a city election set for June 12, resulting in police involvement.

Keith Rossmiller, who served the city as mayor for several times in the past, said, “I’ve never seen this much contention. People are getting too carried away.”

He said he has seen the letters but doesn’t know where they came from.

Several Wildrose residents have contacted Journal Publishing in recent days, providing copies of a sample ballot being passed out by hand on behalf of Wildrose candidates Jess Homer, Darryl (Riley) Reisig, Sarah Herland and Matthew  Schenkenfelder.

Also running for city council are Todd Kragness, Darcy Hanson, Royce Potteiger and Mason Watterud. Running for Park Board are Sarah Herland and City Auditor Sophia Reisig.

Because the city of Wildrose publishes its election notifications in conjunction with Williams County, the only other published notice residents may have seen about the election appeared in the Williston Herald on June 3.

Copies of anonymous letters critical of former city auditor Tricia Potteiger and of newspaper coverage of recent city business have also made their way to the newspaper office, after residents received the letters in the mail. One of those letters resulted Tuesday in Potteiger making a criminal complaint with Williams County since it contained screenshots of her personal Facebook messages. Potteiger alleged the screenshots had to have come from the city’s computer. That case has since been closed, according to Williams County Sheriff’s Detective Caleb Fry.

Meanwhile, LaToya Watterud, wife of council candidate Mason Watterud, declined to press charges following an altercation Wednesday in the Wildrose post office, when she claims Sophia Reisig assaulted her.

“I’ve got bruises. I’m missing a chunk of hair,” Watterud said. 

Reisig, contacted by phone Thursday morning, would not discuss the matter.

“Why? So you can twist my words? No, thank you,” she said, directing any questions to the city council.

Residents react

A smattering of Wildrose residents, contacted by phone Wednesday, offered an array of opinions on the election and general climate surrounding it. Some were not willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

“It’s a crying shame,” Roger Skarphol said. 

He said he has seen the anonymous letters.

“I’m curious who ‘they say’ is,” Skarphol said. “Define ‘they.’ Who is making the comments?”

Skarphol said if people have a problem with what’s going on in Wildrose, they should be willing to put their name on their complaints.

“It’s country bumpkin time here in Wildrose,” Ellayne Tracey said.

Tracey, 72, has lived in Wildrose since she was 6 years old. She’s observed the workings of City Hall and the council for years. Tracey has been openly critical of Reisig’s job performance, questioning Reisig’s attention to detail while taking minutes at council meetings.

“She was talking and laughing with someone during the meeting,” Tracey said. “I asked her if the meetings are recorded. She said, ‘No, I’m writing it down.’ ‘How can you do that when you’re not paying attention?’ I asked her.”

Still logged in

In the course of investigating Potteiger’s complaint regarding her Facebook account, Williams County Deputy Christopher Cook visited Sophia Reisig in her office.

According to Cook’s incident report,  which is a public record, Potteiger expressed concern her Facebook page was left open when she was fired, and that Reisig therefore had access to it.

Cook’s report confirms that.

“Sofia opened Google Chrome, immediately Deputy Cook noticed that the last visited website was Facebook,” the report said, misspelling Reisig’s name. “The icon showed a minimized window of Potteiger’s Facebook. Sofia immediately stated that yes, Potteiger’s Facebook has been logged in since she left office. Sofia stated that she has seen Potteiger receive messages and notifications.”

Potteiger said she feels violated.

“They’ve basically had access to every private conversation I’ve got on Facebook,” she said, and Reisig  could have just logged her out.

Fry said, despite Reisig’s admission, his investigation is finished.

“I discussed it with the BCI,” he said, referring to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “We’re not going to pursue this incident any further but will investigate anything else that may come up.”

That “something else” may include  another letter claiming Potteiger illegally accessed city council member Sarah Herland’s personal email through Herland’s work station at Horizon Resources in Wildrose.

Jeff Wagner, CEO of Horizon Resources, said there was no breach of the company’s internal information systems and referred any other comment to law enforcement.

A judge will be taking a look at Wednesday’s alleged altercation between Reisig and Watterud, even though no criminal charges have been filed. Reisig on Thursday filed a civil action requesting a restraining order against LaToya Watterud. A hearing on that request is set for June 19 in Williston. In the meantime, a temporary order is in effect.

That order precludes Watterud from attending Monday’s council meeting, but early Thursday, Watterud expressed concern for her own safety were she to go to the meeting.

Attorney weighs in

Based on concerns expressed by several residents contacting the Journal, Journal Publishing contacted Wildrose City Attorney Amber Fiesel seeking comment on the election and recent events, including the appearance city resources or equipment may have been involved in the dissemination of the anonymous letters. She said it would be up to the city council to address it.

“At this time, I am unaware of information regarding the use of city property for any anonymous letters,” said Fiesel. 

She went on to say that it would be up to the city council to determine if any action was warranted against Reisig for allegedly sharing screenshots of Potteiger’s Facebook Messenger account.

She said she cannot comment on the altercation at the post office between Reisig and Watterud, since it is part of an ongoing investigation. If any action were to be taken by the city against Reisig, it would have to occur at a council meeting, Fiesel said.

As for the allegation of city resources having been used to prepare the sample ballot distributed on behalf of some of the candidates, she said, “At this time, I am not aware of any city time or resources being used for campaign purposes.”