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Commissioners remove election duties from Clerk & Recorder

Sandra Merchant
Posted at 5:04 PM, Dec 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-13 12:54:15-05

GREAT FALLS — Tensions were high on Tuesday at the Cascade County Commission meeting. Hundreds gathered to hear discussion from the Commission on proposed Resolution 23-64 brought to the table by Commissioner Joe Briggs at the December 5, 2023 Work Session. A passing vote would remove Cascade County Clerk and Recorder from her role as Elections Administrator, effective immediately.

Briggs shared with the public during discussion, this isn't a new idea, previous support was unwanted by previous Commissioners. In earlier interviews with MTN News, Briggs shared his interest in working towards changing the Clerk and Recorder's position to a non-partisan seat and not an elected official.

"...complaints from citizens about the conducting of the election, and a very challenging canvas that I never did get my concerns fully addressed. I believe for that reason is probably why I never had a second vote to bring it forward for formal discussion." Briggs' explained during Tuesday's meeting.

Commissioner James Larson told MTN News on the Monday "Montana This Morning" broadcast, he felt it was a "good idea" considering the magnitude of the 2024 Election and Montana's state in control of the U.S Senate. His concerns grew further in findings of political propaganda inside the Cascade County Elections Office.

"...the Elections Office, citing political paraphernalia in the office and signs during the Library Levy Election. I feel it is time to put a non-partisan person in as Election Administrator." Larson explained.

Reports were brought to the attention of MTN by a citizen ran group that identifies as the Election Protection Committee. Two of the groups main leaders is former Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber who resigned in 2021, and Pete Fontana, the brother of former Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Fontana Moore.

Interview with Sandra Merchant and Rae Grulkowski

Since Sandra Merchant won a seat in Office over Fontana Moore in November 2022, the group has scrutinized Merchant and her staff's operation of County Elections.

Ahead of public comment, scrutiny and support for Merchant's work took center stage.

Commissioner Rae Grulkowski requested the Cascade County Attorney's Office to look into Merchant following law during management of elections.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki told the floor, in the opinion of his office, Merchant "...had not knowingly or willingly..." break any laws. Lawsuits towards Merchant's handling of elections are still being litigated in court.

Merchant had the opportunity to address the Commission during Public Comment. She expressed Commissioner Briggs' disinterest in her office and opposition towards her ability to handle elections. Briggs also told the floor Merchant requested the accounting duties be moved from her office, while she remained the Elections Administrator. That request was granted.

Merchant expressed to the public and Commission, when she arrived in the office, it lacked security, important forms, and software to execute her job. Running out of time for public comment, Merchant, received applause. Per meeting rules, Chairwoman Grulkowski asked the public to keep applause to itself.

Public comment was opened and nearly 100 members of the public expressed their concerns and advocacy for Resolution 23-64.

Elliot Merja was the first to speak and has been outspoken to the Commission in the past. A resident of the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, he is one of multiple plaintiffs in litigation filed over the May 2, 2023 election.

"I have a lawsuit against this. I hate to do that because taxpayers are paying for that. But, it was egregious what they did."

The opinions poured in and the public expressed concerns of tyranny and dictatorship over Briggs and Larson supressing voters, criticism "fake news" media, and the difficultly to find a non-partisan replacement.

"This reeks of political favoritism of the old guard. Last I checked, if there is any implication or loss of elections, don't pander to those who never supported you. Respect the will of the voters who put you in those seats, come on tough tusks, do the right thing," exclaimed MT state Sen. Jeremy Trebas (R-Great Falls).

"We have elected, elections officials in Cascade County, paid by our taxpayers and they're expected to run those elections without controversy," added Tom Moore, Superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools.

Following the conclusion of multiple hours of public comment, the Commission came to a vote in favor of Resolution 23-64, 2-1.

Briggs added, "I do not do this lightly because quite frankly, I agree with a great deal of what the opposition has said. However, we have a problem that I believe has to be fixed and has to be fixed in the near-term."

Commissioner Briggs told MTN News that the Merchant's replacement would go through a stringent hiring process. The Commission will work on filling the new position through the beginning of the 2024.

The resolution goes in effect, immediately, and Sandra Merchant will no longer operate Cascade County elections. Future elections will be under the supervision of the interim administrator and the Cascade County Commission.