Elected officials run to represent a specific area and a designated population. It is a pretty basic concept and one that you overwhelmingly voted to enshrine in the North Dakota Constitution. Yet, it appears not all of our legislators are abiding by that concept and recently passed Constitutional amendment. The latest example was sent to me by a reader and involves Rep. Bill Oliver.
In the 2016 election, 86% of voters passed Measure one. The measure, “Relating to Legislator Residency Requirements” amended Section IV of the ND Constitution. The residency requirements for Legislators you approved follows. Note, “An individual may not serve in the legislative assembly unless the individuals lives in the district from which selected.”
This measure was brought to you by a bipartisan movement in the 2015 Legislative Session. Senate Concurrent Resolution 4010 was sponsored by Republican leaders, Al Carlson and Rich Wardner, and Democratic leaders, Kenton Onstad and Mac Schneider. It passed both chambers with large majorities showing strong bipartisan agreement.
The reason this was brought forward was because of a history of elected officials moving out of their district during their term. People representing Dickinson lived in Fargo. Individuals representing Fargo lived in Minot (and may still). People representing one part of Grand Forks lived in another part of Grand Forks. Members of both parties were guilty so both parties put forward a fix.
The same day 86% of voters approved the constitutional amendment, District 4 elected Bill Oliver of New Town. One of the many newly elected Republicans in the 2016 wave election, he served in the 2017 session. According to readers in District 4, Oliver has since moved to Thief River Falls, MN and is managing an O’Reilly’s Auto Parts Store there. Oliver has made reference to his new position on a Facebook post dated November 4th.
Former Rep. Kenton Onstad, a co-author of the resolution voters approved, wrote a letter to the editor pointing out Oliver’s move outside the district. Onstad noted if a member lives outside his/her district for 30 days, they should resign their position and called for Oliver’s resignation.
Yet, a gray area exists in residency. Loopholes have been used. For example, members will keep mail going to a mailbox in the district and periodically return to pick it up. Others may keep a residence but do not actually live there. At what point does a “lake home” on Otter Tail Lake become a primary residence because a legislator spends a majority of their time there when not in legislative session? These arguments were brought up during the 2015 debate. There wasn’t agreement on a solution at the time.
According to Legislative Council, the constitutional amendment voters approved is basically unenforceable. There is little reference in Century Code to residency requirements, and while Oliver appears to be in violation, there probably isn’t much that would force him out. This is an area we should expect legislators to fix in the 2019 session unless ethics measures are passed by voters in 2018.
In the meantime, if Oliver resigns before August 25th there would be a special election in November for that seat. If he drags his feet and is still in office after August 25th, then the Republican party would choose his replacement that would serve the remainder of the term. Because of that, I’m not confident of his voluntary resignation unless public pressure mounts or a recall takes place.