Nearly 30 years ago, Dan Kalil was a young farmer, working land in Williams County that had been in his family since the early 1900s.
He and other farmers often used a dirt road that ran by his property, until damage to a bridge on the roadway forced them to find another route, which meant a six-mile detour with heavy farm equipment.
Kalil took the issue to the Williston Township Board, and was told there was no money to fix the problem.
A short time later, on a whim, he asked a friend to nominate him to an open position on the board, leading to his election in 1988.
The move was his first foray into public service, and despite his initial nervousness, Kalil’s moment of bravado paid off. Not long into his term, a letter from the state arrived asking for proposals for energy impact grants. Brushing off fellow board members’ assertions that Williston Township would never receive any money, Kalil wrote his first grant proposal, and was awarded $22,000 to fix the dirt road.
The moment was eye-opening, and several years later, at the urging of a friend, Kalil ran for office at the county level, narrowly defeating longtime Williams County Commission Chairwoman Marlene Eide for a seat on the commission in 1992.
Kalil officially leaves the post on Tuesday after 24 years, during which the demands of the position increased to a nearly all-encompassing level at the height of oil industry activity several years ago.
Now, money is again tight and energy activity has slowed as Kalil, 58, prepares to step away, but he says the changes the county weathered during the boom years has left it resilient, and well-positioned for success.
“Now the county is in good shape for the future,” he said, citing road projects, technology upgrades and cooperative projects with the city of Williston. “Everything we did we did with a long-term view.”
When Kalil first took his seat on the commission, the oil boom of the early 1980s was long past, and Williston was still a “five-minute” town, where errands such as trips to the bank or grocery store took five minutes.
“It was so easy. You never stood in line for anything,” he said. “We had so much quality of life because it was so easy to live here.”
Still, the sudden slowdown in the oilfield, combined with a drought soon after, left the county struggling financially.
Money was so tight that Kalil would personally make the rounds to department heads, asking them not to spend money until the budget was balanced.
He and other commissioners spent long hours making spending decisions, ultimately focusing on road improvements, social services and updating technology and equipment in anticipation of the next big energy boom.
By the mid-2000s, as horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracking were fine-tuned, the oil cycle was on the upswing again, taking county officials nearly by surprise with its intensity in 2009.
“It just went crazy,” Kalil said.
Upswing brings money, promises and lies
The boom brought challenges to the commission in the form of wear and tear on roads, a shortage of housing and a strain on law enforcement.
Kalil’s position on the Planning and Zoning board went from minimal responsibility to almost a full time job, and county commission meetings turned into grueling hours-long sessions full of requests for permits and zoning changes from companies hoping to build on land formerly dedicated to agriculture.
The timing of the resurgence, which hit as the rest of the nation suffered through a recession, added to the frenzy in the Bakken, which began to see a seemingly never-ending stream of developers and contractors.
“Everyone wanted to come here, everyone was trying to heal up, trying to make the big score,” Kalil said. “There was so much money waiting to be spent that was thrown at this community. There were so many promises, so many lies told.”
Being a public servant in Williams County suddenly meant deciding between who was granted permission to proceed and who wasn’t.
“It changed to picking winners and losers — who gets the man camp, who gets the subdivision,” Kalil said.
Sudden growth brought with it big decisions, especially for the county’s law enforcement, which was increasingly stretched thin by the needs of a larger population. In 2009, the county commission approved work to expand its capacity from 35 to 132 inmates. By 2014, it was obvious the new jail needed to be replaced. This time, the price tag had climbed to about $20 million.
Kalil was at the forefront of both projects, working closely with Sheriff Scott Busching to try to gauge needs for the next 50 years.
“We had a lot of sleepless nights considering whether we should do this or not,” Busching said of the second jail expansion. “Dan was one I could always count on, I could sit down with him and bounce things off him, and we came to decisions together. He was very forthright and very honest, if he said something you could take it to the bank.”
Kalil’s responsibilities as a commissioner earned him the nickname “Mr. Meetings” from his family, his wife, Kathy Kalil, said.
“In the early days, our boys were young, and he spent so much time at the commission just learning the ropes. At that point he was learning how to balance the budget,” she said.
She and their four sons watched as the demands on his time grew, but his commitment to the position remained the same.
“He’s always been really accessible to people when they call, he always calls everybody back. His mantra was always ‘will this be good for the county, or not’,” Kathy Kalil said. “We were always very very proud of him... There were times when people asked if he wanted to run for office on a state level, but he felt like he could make more of a difference on a local level.”
Always protective of rural residents and farmers, Kalil’s stance against consistently green-lighting oil-related development drew criticism at times, but his peers say that immovability left a mark.
“The main thing that I found in Dan was total dedication to the citizens of Williams County, their welfare, their well-being,” Williams County Commissioner Martin Hanson said. “We wanted to keep the rural part of Williams County as rural as we could… we felt the farmers of Williams County had given up enough land for the oil industry.”
24 years in office
Kalil, who told county employees he did not want a going-away party, was nevertheless surprised by friends and family who gathered to wish him well at his final commission meeting last month.
The unpredictability of the meetings meant he never entered one without feeling nervous, but, Kalil said, he embraced the uncertainty as part of the adventure.
“You never knew what was going to happen,” he said. “For 24 years I put the county first, the farm second and my family third, and somehow it all turned out. I’m looking forward to just going back to the farm, but I will miss the phone calls I would get and the phone calls I would make. That was where the satisfaction came from, the satisfaction that you could help people.”
A self-proclaimed conservative, Kalil also calls himself a conservationist, and says many of those with whom he worked with through the years shared that approach.
“Everything we touch should be better than how we found it,” he said. “We didn’t achieve all of that, but we worked toward it.”