District court judge sides with library in appointing monitor for mill levy election

By: - May 18, 2023 7:08 pm

Cascade County Courthouse photographed on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

A district court judge sided with the Great Falls Public Library Board in appointing an elections monitor for the upcoming mill levy election June 6.

Judge Brenda Gilbert appointed the board’s choice for monitor, Lynn DeRoche, who worked in the Elections Office for more than 16 years under former Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore and under current Clerk Sandra Merchant for about the first month of her term.

DeRoche told the Daily Montanan that Merchant did not consult her on how to run elections and barely spoke to her at all after Merchant took the job, and DeRoche found a new county job in February.

Gilbert said she chose DeRoche in the interest of time, as the respondent’s proposed monitor candidates had not been consulted prior. These suggested persons included Clerks and Recorders from Ravalli County, Regina Plettenberg, and Flathead County, Debbie Pierson, among others.

“This will require Ms. DeRoche and Ms. Merchant to put any past differences aside and put their efforts toward – the fair and efficient election moving forward,” Gilbert said.

Merchant said previously in both a letter and in court filings that she opposed the appointment of a monitor and the appointment of DeRoche, specifically. Merchant’s attorney, Elizabeth Worth Lund, contested DeRoche’s appointment claiming she is biased and unqualified. Lund said the appointment proposal was “political and unprecedented” and “an excuse to spy on Miss Merchant.”

Raph Graybill, a lawyer for the library board, pushed back against the accusations. He said in an interview DeRoche is an existing county employee in a nonpartisan position.

“The allegation that there’s something political about this is totally baseless. There’s no one more qualified to do this. She’s available. She’s ready to go. And she’s not a former political official in any way,” Graybill said.

Gilbert did not issue an order during the hearing Thursday, which had been moved up due to scheduling conflicts, but asked counsel to submit a proposed order that encompassed the directive she gave from the bench.

Merchant did not respond to an emailed request for comment Thursday afternoon in time for publication.

The decision comes in the wake of problems with Merchant’s handling of the May 2 local school board and flood district elections. For example, some voters received two absentee ballots, ballots would not fit properly in the return envelope and the polling location opened an hour late, with voters not able to submit ballots before going to work in the morning.

This was Merchant’s first test as an Elections Administrator, as she beat out Moore by less than 40 votes in November. In early March, Merchant sent emails to districts holding upcoming elections saying mail-in ballots would not be “administratively feasible,” and suggested the library election be postponed. Merchant later said the election would be possible to hold June 6, but would be a hybrid poll and absentee ballot election.


An attorney representing residents of the West Great Falls Flood and Drainage Control District as well as separate clients in the Fort Shaw Irrigation District sent a letter Thursday to Cascade County Commissioners urging them not to certify their elections due to irregularities and requested another election be conducted.

“The service provided to the public in this election may be described using words such as ‘abhorrent,’ ‘atrocious,’ ‘contemptible’ and ‘despicable.’ Maybe it is better simply to describe this election as a complete failure,” the letter on the Fort Shaw election read. “Your duties as county commissioners require you to supervise the official conduct of all county officers and to see that the officers faithfully perform their duties – There was nothing ‘faithful’ here.

“I would ask that you send this election back to the District and the Elections Office, but I have no confidence that either of them is able to conduct an appropriate election.”

Graybill said in court Thursday that the library mill levy election already has seen issues, one of which came to his attention just prior to the hearing. He said voters Everett Hall and Carroll Hall both received absentee ballots for the election, however, they both contained secrecy envelopes for other voters with different names who lived miles away.

The consequences of the library’s election being invalidated, like service and staffing shortages along with losing access to state aid, were underscored in Graybill’s argument, one Judge Gilbert ultimately agreed with.

He said voters in a delayed result could ultimately decide to vote in favor of the mill levy, but due to the timing of the fiscal year, the library would still suffer as they couldn’t access the additional funds for another year.

Gilbert said the role of the monitor would be akin to other “eyes of the court” positions, like a guardian ad litem in child protective cases. She said the monitor can give advice and can report back to the court if there are irregularities.

“The monitor will not supplant the court’s role in ensuring that the election is properly administered, but will rather assist the court with obtaining information and providing it to the court,” she said. “The monitor shall have direct and unfettered access to the elections office and all of its operations. If there are operations occurring at the elections office, outside of the normal business hours, then the respondent will have the obligation to notify the monitor of that in order that the monitor would have the right to be there.”

Graybill also highlighted issues that came up prior to the hearing, like incorrect information in ballot instructions that the library intervened and corrected before it went out to voters.

Lund cited the library’s oversight in this instance as a reason why a monitor was unnecessary.

“Montana statutes provide that elections are to be public already and anybody can observe,” she said.

She responded to a claim Graybill made that visitors to the Elections Office were asked to leave after 5 p.m., saying she wasn’t aware of that, but they would work with the library to be able to observe the mill levy election.

Lund was especially in opposition to DeRoche’s appointment, saying there was “too much history there,” and adding that voters chose Merchant over Moore in the last election.

DeRoche said in an interview Thursday that she tuned into the hearing and said she didn’t want to respond to the comments made about her. She said she agreed to be a monitor because it was the right thing to do and she said she hopes Merchant will be open to her advice and what she has to offer.

“Everybody deserves to have a fair election and everybody deserves their votes to be counted correctly,” DeRoche said.

Attorneys for both parties will have until 10 a.m. Monday to send the court their proposed order.

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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.