Hearing for Great Falls library election monitor set; COPP responds to candidate’s complaint

By: - May 12, 2023 4:04 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Cascade County District Court scheduled a hearing for May 23 to determine whether there will be an election monitor for the upcoming mill levy election for the Great Falls Public Library, as requested by the library earlier this week.

The hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. and both the library and Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant can nominate a proposed monitor with the court before May 22. Merchant said in a letter to the library’s council on Wednesday that she did not consent to a monitor.

The library’s request for an elections monitor comes in the wake of the Great Falls Public School District election that took place last week, in which the library noted several mishaps — from not following proper procedures for verifying signatures, to not being open on time on election day for people to vote.

The library board of trustees also filed another concern with the court regarding the public notice for the upcoming election published in the Great Falls Tribune. The notice, included as an exhibit in the filing, incorrectly lists the mill levy election date as May 2, when it is June 6. The notice also lists a date range of May 17 to May 22 for when absentee ballots will be mailed out, when the filing says absentee ballots legally must be mailed 20 days before the election, meaning May 17.

Merchant has been under a local microscope after she previously told election stakeholders like the library that she would be unable to conduct an all mail-in ballot for the May 2 election in emails sent in February. This sparked concern, and weeks later, Merchant laid out the plan for a hybrid absentee ballot and poll election in a March meeting. She won her election for Clerk and Recorder by less than 40 votes in November, beating 16-year incumbent Rina Moore.

The June 6 mill levy election would determine whether the library will be able to maintain staffing levels and service capabilities, as well as $30,000 in state funds.

Incumbent candidate for the Great Falls Public School Board of Trustees Bill Bronson, who won re-election according to results reported last week, received a response to a complaint he filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

According to the complaint, Bronson said a text message was sent out that falsely listed party affiliations for various candidates in the nonpartisan school board election and that the message didn’t include a “paid for” disclosure from the political group that sent it.

In Commissioner Chris Gallus’ response to Bronson last week, he said his review determined that it was a valid complaint as outlined in COPP rules. However, the complaint was received after Election Day, outside of the COPP deadline. Gallus said he would contact the group that Bronson said sent the message, Free to Learn Action, and request they provide the “paid for by” attribution, as well as the quantity of paid messages sent and the date or dates such messages were sent.

Gallus said in his letter that upon further review he would determine whether a formal investigation is warranted.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.