Barking dogs and illegal parkers prompt "nasty-grams" in N.D. town

This sign entering the town of Horace, N.D., shown Feb. 28, 2014, makes it clear to residents that there is no overnight street parking, an ongoing issue for several towns around the Fargo metropolitan area. AP Photo/Dave Kolpack

HARWOOD, N.D. -- Noncriminal annoyances such as illegal parking and barking dogs have been nagging residents of burgeoning bedroom communities around the Fargo area, so much so that one town looked into the possibility of hiring citizens to hand out citations.

When officials in Harwood realized the expense was too great and nobody wanted the job anyway, they opted for the power of the pen. The offenders received letters from the city telling them to rein in their dogs and stop parking on city streets.

"We decided to take care of our problems with our nasty-grams," joked Bill Rohrich, who has been the mayor of the town for 11 years.

In a metropolitan area where the estimated growth in the last decade is approaching 20 percent, Harwood is not alone with its increasing offenses. Some people who choose to flee the city have been surprised to find there are rules in small towns, too, said Mitch Burris, a captain with the Cass County sheriff's department.

"Some people get out into rural developments, and they think they are in the country and they can do whatever they want to and they don't have to follow county ordinances or city regulations," Burris said.

Some towns have opted to buy extra help from authorities. Burris said the towns of Horace, Mapleton, Casselton and Kindred - all within 30 miles of Fargo - contract with Cass County to have a deputy patrol their towns for several hours each day. Horace, southwest of Fargo, pays about $36,000 a year for the service.

"It's definitely the way to go," said Shane Walock, the Horace mayor. "We get a complaint and the deputy will go talk to them to collect the loose dogs. The only downside is if they capture a dog that doesn't have a tag, they go to the pound," he said.

Burris said the department appreciates the ability of towns to finance their own patrols in a county where the complaints have increased along with the population. The most recent report by the department, issued in March 2013, showed that service calls in the county went up from 3,482 in 2011 to 4,272 in 2012.

"If I don't have to send somebody from another call to go and pick up a barking dog and take it the pound ... Cass County will have more time to apply to other things," Burris said.

Most of the problems with parking revolve around the fact that most small towns don't allow cars on streets overnight, especially during the school year. Rohrich, who drives a school bus for Cass Valley North High School, found that he was having trouble navigating around vehicles on some mornings.

Harwood had directed its city attorney, John Shockley, to ask North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem whether it was legal to use citizens to handle those noncriminal annoyances. Shockley said he thought it was OK but there was no case law to support it.

"You can't go to jail for a barking dog; you can't go to jail for a parking ticket. And you can't make an arrest for those type of issues," Shockley said.

Stenehjem said in an opinion issued last month that the practice is perfectly acceptable and has been enacted in some of the larger cities.

"It appears reasonable to want to free up local law enforcement to focus on more serious offenses by allowing city residents to issue citations for minor, non-criminal violations of city ordinances," Stenehjem wrote.

Harwood officials decided they could not justify expenses such as training and insurance.

"It was just a fact-finding thing," Rohrich said of the attorney general's opinion. "The people have responded really well to the letters, and it's not a major problem. It's typical small-town USA."

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