Western North Dakota Politicians Need To Lead, Follow Or Get Out Of The Way

“We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people,” General George S. Patton III once said. “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

That quote jumped in to my mind as I read this article about some western North Dakota leaders who are apparently overwhelmed by the impact of the state’s oil boom.

“Our quality of life is gone. It is absolutely gone,” said Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil at a meeting called by statewide leaders to discuss oil impacts. “My community is gone, and I’m heartbroken. I never wanted to live anyplace but Williston, North Dakota, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Somebody has to be brave enough to stand up and say, ‘Too much, too fast.’”

Clearly, Mr. Kalil is feeling a bit emotional, and I can’t necessarily blame him or the other citizens/leaders who feel as he does. What western North Dakota is going through is a major economic and social shift. Something like that doesn’t come without hardships, which I can attest to personally. I not only live in the midst of the Bakken boom, but my family went through the north slope/Aleyska Pipeline boom in Alaska too.

But I can tell you that Mr. Kalil’s attitude is a dangerous one for leaders in the state to take. With political activists looking for any hook they can get to derail traditional energy development, and with a media environment that has proven itself both hostile to the energy development in its reporting and willing to sensationalize any hint of a negative impact from it, our political leaders ought to be keeping a cool head.

Those that can’t perhaps shouldn’t be leaders any more.

Again, I’m sensitive to the problems and challenges created by the oil boom, but we can’t afford a defeatist attitude. The state cannot simply wave the white flag. Most of the state’s oil development happens on private property, with private companies doing the drilling and pumping. Are we to tell mineral rights owners that they can get their resources developed because some people in the community feel things are growing too fast? Are we to tell these private companies that they can’t engage in their industries because we have local officials who feel they aren’t up to the tasks that go along with the sort of economic and social growth the state has seen?

The state wields its policy making powers to protect against crime and facilitate lawful commerce. It does not wield that power to apply some arbitrary standards as to what some people think is an appropriate amount of economic growth.

The worst thing that could come out of the oil boom is for the state’s policy makers to cave in to a panic born of the emotions of this moment in the state’s history and make some bad decisions that will linger long after the oil boom has plateaued.

A lot of the problems facing western North Dakota will be solved with time. Believe it or not, there is an upper limit to what oil companies are willing to pay to house their staff. Housing prices will ease as infrastructure and development allows more units to be put on the market. Law enforcement and road capacity will catch up with growth. The environmental issues that exist are well-known, and getting plenty of attention thanks to certain activists and a media environment that is sympathetic to them.

Rather than giving up, rather than declaring defeat, the expectation from North Dakota citizens should be that our leaders rise to these challenges.

Sadly, what counts for leadership a the local levels these days often consists of little more than filling out the appropriate forms to make issue the problem of a higher level of government. Roads in tough shape? Blame the state. Need a new dog park? Ask for a federal earmark.

But the state of federalism, and local control, in America is a topic for another post.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • Cherz1967

    Every single person in Williston, ND right now is a resident and that jackass represents every single one of them.  Whether they were there before the boom or after the boom.  He should pull his head out of his ass and grow a set.  I sit with farmers that now have wells on their land and after eating dirt for 40 years can finally buy their wives curtains and a dress.  I guess it’s pretty obvious this commisioner is one voice among many, but elections are there for a reason and he should be replaced. 

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      I think you make a good point about the politicians representing the new citizens as well as the ones who have been there for generations.

      Some of these guys, it seems, would rather go back to a western North Dakota that was full of tiny, dying communities.

    • awfulorv

      I’ve long harbored a theory that a North Dakota farmer, whose fields produced real Dollar bills, rather than wheat, would whine, sniffle, and curse his fate, that they were not five dollar bills. 

  • headward

    Why do they still pay people to be economic developers?  what a waste of money in the first place.  But in the economic boom that they are in right now is completely worthless.

    • headward

      Williston’s Economic Executive Director salary is +$70k.

      • John_Wayne_American

        and could earn 25 thou on top of that just by getting a CDL and hauling water or sand.  That EDC position is at least a 12 hour a day job, the phones ring non stop and there is no end in sight. Put out one fire while 3 others are started. They are damn lucky that person doesn’t say stuff this, I’m going to be an office worker for Halliburton for 105K..  then the city would have to pay 90K and find housing for the replacement. think before you post. Unless you live in Williston you have know Idea.

        • headward

          I did live in Williston.  Just saying that position isn’t really needed IMO anytime.  The government shouldn’t be giving handouts.  The EDC advises who committees on who should get tax breaks and who shouldn’t.  Tax money(Star fund, grants, etc) should never be given to private businesses.  It’s unconstitutional per the ND constitution.

          I bet the EDC does work very hard.  They probably do a great job.  I’m just saying that it may not be good for the tax payers of Williston as the city budget is requiring more money.  You don’t send plows out when there is no snow.  Why do you need somebody driving economic development when you’re in a gold rush?

          Housing is an issue because of the PZ committee.  Many land owners want to put up some houses or trailers but get denied.  Man camps are stopped from putting up more. 

          So I don’t want to hear about this “Unless you live in Williston you have know(sic) idea”.  I think you should say, “Unless you understand basic economics with supply, demand, and prices – you have no idea.”

          • John_Wayne_American

            Its unconstitutional for the state to issue a check to an individual, but apparently not against the city bylaws or Constitution, there in lies a difference and I guess the problem.

            Having not been to a Williston City Commission meeting, I don’t think they are handing out much star fund dollars lately. 

             And if they are, it could be to keep some key businesses in operation or to incentive those business that they desperately need, such as Menards to locate a business into a town were operations will be far from normal for quite some time to come.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            Its unconstitutional for the state to issue a check to an individual, but apparently not against the city bylaws or Constitution, there in lies a difference and I guess the problem.

            The state’s laws trump the city laws.  The city is only a political subdivision of the state.  As Fargo how their traffic ticket lawsuit worked out.

            And the 10th amendment leaves issues not addressed in the US Constitution to the states.

            Government “economic development” in the form of giving loans or other subsidies to businesses in ND is explicitly illegal.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            Having not been to a Williston City Commission meeting, I don’t think they are handing out much star fund dollars lately.

            Really?  Because just last year Menards got $5 million.

          • John_Wayne_American

            I already mentioned Menards, and by default, Menards property tax exemption.

            Menards builds a new store in a town where you can’t hire help, Its a big risk. But Williston desperately needs a place to buy all the little thing you need to finish out the over 3000 new housing units that have been built and the additional 2400 they will build this building season.

            You live in Minot Rob.

            Half the people in your Menards every day are from Williston, look at all the cars that will take off the road alone!

             Better than the free lunch crowd that wants to give Halliburton, Sanjay, Schlumberger and all those other million dollar new buildings+yards a property tax free incentive also.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            I’m not for business-specific tax breaks.

            And no, a tax break for Menards is not better than that.  Menards didn’t need the subsidy to build in Williston, and local leaders can’t both complain that things are growing too fast while simultaneously handing out special deals to cronies.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            You don’t get to have it both ways.

          • headward

            With free money comes corruption.

            The Star fund issues out grants to different businesses and NPOs for projects.  Like you, I don’t know how much the Star fund has given out.  They have to be sitting on a pile of cash because it is collected by that 1% sales tax.

  • Debbie

    In the case of Watford City, our economic development director is worth his weight in gold.  He is the one who is fielding all the calls inquiring about opportunities in our area.  He has to listen to everyone’s story of how they’re coming out here and what they’re going to do, weed out the dreamers from the people who will actually follow through, and try to help those who are serious connect with whomever they need to secure housing, and whatever else they all need.  His position has evolved, and is needed now more than ever.  

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      It sounds like Watford City needs new political leadership if the economic development director is doing their jobs.

      • John_Wayne_American

        Would you rather have the members of the city commission take those calls all day Rob? 
        City/County Commissioners are not paid, or not paid much. They put in a hell of a lot of time for what they get in return. Besides having one person or one office taking those calls makes for a uniform response to all.  There is now way I’d want to be a city commissioner in one of those towns, its a thankless, damned if you do/dont deal and then you get an out of town blogger berating you for something they don’t have first hand knowledge about. 

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          Would you rather have the members of the city commission take those calls all day Rob?

          Well, depending on what the calls are, yes.  It’s the job of the elected leaders to lead the city.  If they’re not up to the task, they should step aside.

        • Jimmypop

          john…the answer is yes…they got hired to do this. now, you need to raise taxes (as soon as you can) and pay people to do their job.

          SOMEBODY needs to help guide these little boom towns. the folks that got elected to do it should….well, DO IT or, as posted, quit and let someone else. these little towns need leadership NOW, not tomorrow.

          the mistakes little towns make will cost EVERYONE, state wide, money when its time to fix the errors.

  • Hannahchandler2001

    The attitude of we just need to slow or stop the growth, is really going to kill the quality of life. I live in Williston. They really need to get a plan and start working it (I don’t know maybe look to other communities that have gone through this type of growth) before this becomes a really scary place to live. Where is the housing for families? Where is the shopping? Where are all the little things that make a community a nice place to live?

  • Ndwriter

    This is good perspective. It’s really sad that people are turning against each other to fight, rather than banding together to make something happen. I grew up outside ND (have been here for about 15 yrs now) and in my home state the problems are varied and so caught up in the muck that there really isn’t a way to solve most of them. And it’s been like that for over 30 yrs. ND may have a ton to figure out but it’s solvable. It will take time, resources, patience, and willingness to accept change but it is solvable. I thought this letter said it well in Williston: 
    http://www.willistonherald.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/firmly-planted-in-williston/article_ae2d043a-483d-11e1-ab83-001871e3ce6c.html I don’t know the author but she makes a good point. 

  • awfulorv

    These problems can be summed up with just a few words, and acronyms. Jealousy; that Joe Doakes has a four bedroom home, rents three rooms out for $800 per month, and I have no rooms to rent out because my snotty kids are using them.  Prudery; they make much more than I do, and then they spend some of it in bars and strip clubs, and my wife, and our pastor, wont let me near those places. NIMBY; I’m not going to let them build oil storage tanks over on their property because that would ruin the beautiful views of the mountains from my back yard deck. We’ve heard it all before, next you know, when it warms up,  their most rebellious younguns  will be prostrating themselves on the roads.  That, pretty much, wraps up what afflicts the good citizens of Salem, err, I mean Williston these days.

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