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GF county officials say vets services continue despite resignations

Grand Forks County officials say that the abrupt resignations of the top two officials in the Veterans Services office last week haven't had a huge impact on the services provided.

The office, which employs three, helps vets with paperwork such as change of addresses, pay inquiries and filing disability applications.

"We're down two people," said County Director of Administration Ed Nierode. "The one thing that has been positive, the state veterans office is providing the additional training this individual needs. They're trying to send somebody up here three days a week assist with customer traffic and provide training."

He also said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in Fargo could handle some of the inquiries directed to Grand Forks County.

Veterans Service Officer Barb Zavala and Assistant Veterans Service Officer Cathy Westensee resigned on Jan. 20 after receiving letters ordering them to a termination meeting in front of the County Commission.

They were also the public administrator and assistant public administrator, respectively, positions that serve as court-appointed guardians or conservators of personal estates.

Before they resigned, the pair was facing charges of "misappropriation of funds" and "falsified information presented to a law enforcement investigation." The North Dakota Attorney General's office wouldn't "confirm or deny" whether the state's Bureau of Criminal Investigations was looking into the matter.

Attempts to contact Zavala were not successful. Westensee said she had no comment because she didn't know anything about charges against her. Her resignation letter, however, said she disagreed with the county's reasoning for the termination.

Guardianship changes

The Veterans Services positions will likely be filled within the next two months, county officials said, but it's unclear if the public administrator positions will be as well.

State's Attorney Peter Welte said the public administrator position was a carryover from the county court system that stayed when the state established a district court system.

Judges can appoint one as a guardian, but aren't obliged to.

"It affects a fairly small amount of cases," Welte said. "The number of guardians in the state is somewhere around 23."

Dennis Herbeck, a court administrator for 13 northeast counties, said only six of the counties have public administrators.

Another question mark surrounding the position is compensation.

Public administrators are paid by the county, Welte said, but in some cases may receive a percent of monthly income of a guardianship, as much as 5 percent. If an administrator is working with a more valuable estate, that percent could make for a significant figure.

Lack of oversight is a potential problem with the position as well, Herbeck said. The administrator needs to present a judge with an audit once a year.

Welte said the North Dakota Legislative Council is studying the position to see if changes need to be made.

"I don't know how it will affect the position," Welte said. "But I think the position is certainly one that is needed and I would hope this is just another situation where there is a transition. It's an important job, but it's in need of a modification."