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Cascade County Commissioners appoint interim elections administrator

Jim Larson, Rae Grulkowski, Joe Briggs
Posted at 1:30 PM, Dec 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-26 15:30:01-05

GREAT FALLS — A week and a half after election duties were stripped from the Cascade County Clerk & Recorders Office, a new interim elections administrator has been appointed.

The Cascade County Commissioners held a meeting on Friday to appoint Beatrice Deveraux Biddick as the interim administrator.

“As far as the staff was concerned, she has kind of just stepped up as the as the lead over the course of the last year,” said commissioner Joe Briggs. “She's the longest standing employee in the in the office at the moment. So it was pretty logical.”

Biddick has been working with Cascade County Elections and will be in charge of keeping elections fair and organized, which was a job previously held by the Clerk and Recorders Office. Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant was unable to attend the meeting herself due to personal reasons.

“[Biddick] regards elections and the honesty in our elections office,” said commissioner Rae Grulkowski. “And the ability for people to have to believe the system is working, that their votes are counting.”

The meeting also included going through the job description of the Interim Election Administrator and clearing up words and phrases to make sure the role was understood completely, as well as allowing public comment to the commissioners.

Grulkowski felt it was important to go through the job description in front of the public before appointing anyone, which she felt other commissioners felt as an unnecessary action.

“I think it's a good time to start evaluating our meetings and that we're doing them in front of the public as we should,” Grulkowski said.

Biddick’s new role is effective immediately, and it is currently unknown how long the interim position will be in place before finding a permanent administrator.

“This is a fairly specific skill set,” Briggs said, “I would prefer someone that had a few years of experience, if we can get that person.”

(DECEMBER 13, 2023) On Tuesday the Cascade County Commission voted 2-1 to strip election adminstration duties from Sandra Merchant and the Clerk & Recorders office, with commissioners Joe Briggs and Jim Larson voting for the resolution and commissioner Rae Grulkowski voting against.

Hundreds of people showed up to the meeting to express their thoughts and concerns over six hours of public comment.

And many had the same question. What comes next?

The resolution went into effect immediately after the meeting and the county human resources director met with elections staff appointed by Merchant on Wednesday morning.

Cascade County elections administration: what happens next?

“(The meeting) is to assess whether we had an issue with some of those people not wanting to stay,” Briggs told MTN. “Hopefully, they will stay under new management and then that'll give us the size of the issue.”

The commission scheduled a meeting for Friday, December 15, 2023, to discuss an interim appointment. The public meeting begins at 11 a.m., and people can also attend virtually by clicking here.

Sandra Merchant (June 6, 2023)
Sandra Merchant (June 6, 2023)

But like all county hires, there’s a very well defined and thorough process involved in creating a new position and attracting candidates.

“We need to put a job description out quickly, get that out in the street. But as I pointed out, we are constrained legally on how we do things,” Briggs. “It's not like a business where you could set up basically who the replacements are going to be before you take an action. We have a very prescribed processes we have to use in order to be an equal opportunity employer. So, yeah, we have some scrambling to do.”

Briggs expressed optimism that there will be plenty of qualified candidates for the interim position, drawing from a pool of retired elections administrators statewide or even someone who worked in Cascade County elections previously.

A quick hire is not a sure thing, however. The county is still looking for a Chief Financial Officer, a position that was posted in Februrary but remains vacant. Grulkowski doesn’t believe a transition in the elections office will be seamless.

Cascade County Commission Meeting.png

“We have been searching for a CFO for a year and we certainly need that position. We haven't found that. I don't know how this is going to come together. Not to mention starting over with training,” she said. “. I think the public needs to know, the commissioners have not met on this issue. As far as I'm concerned, we're not starting on page one. We're still looking at the cover. And that's not work. That's just not safe.”

Merchant will vacate the elections office but will remain the Clerk and Recorder. After Tuesday’s decision, it’s clear that there are major divisions within the Cascade County office. But it’s unclear if those decisions can be resolved.

“We’ve got to start with conversations but I meet closed doors every time I try to have these conversations,” Grulkoswki said. “And the people didn't elect us just to take the easy way out. It's hard work. You got to roll your sleeves up. You got to deal with the personalities you don't like, and you got to find the answers at the source and then be ready to stay with it until you can resolve it.”

The first scheduled election in 2024 will take place May 7, candidate filing begins in January.