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Irrigation election postponed for further assessment

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LAKE COUNTY – Owners of irrigated land within the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project will have to wait to cast their ballots for the annual election for two board positions along with a decision to allow two of the three districts to work together.

The ballot issues were originally scheduled to go out with the May 7 Special District and School District Election mail-in ballots. Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher said a delay needed to happen for the Mission, Jocko and Flathead irrigation districts to ensure a fair election. 

The problem was first noticed after an election official was preparing ballots and noticed a discrepancy in the number of acres owned by some voters. Officials determined that 19,000 acres were not accounted for in the Flathead District. The number of acres owned by individuals often changes as land is bought and sold or put in trust. In irrigation elections, people get one vote for each irrigated acre they own, so the error could mean some people wouldn’t get their entitled voting weight. “That is a lot of votes and could seriously affect the outcome of the election,” Eschenbacher said. 

He doesn’t recall ever having to postpone an election, but he said it’s more important to have correct information than to face lawsuits if people don’t get the correct number of votes.

David Lake and Janette Rosman’s board seats on the Flathead District were up for election, both plan to be on the ballot, and are running opposed. Jocko incumbent Boone Cole and Mission incumbent Ray Swenson’s were uncontested. Swenson and Cole will be sworn in after the election. 

Voters will also cast a decision on whether the Mission and Jocko districts should be allowed to create a joint board. “The law reads that if irrigators submit a petition and hold a referendum, and if it’s voted on and passes, then the boards can join together,” Swenson said. “We are waiting on a vote. Working together would simplify things.”   

The election office is tasked with administering the election, but the boards are responsible for sending in the needed voter information used to run the election. The board is projected to take until May to get the discrepancies fixed. They also have to give a 60-day notice before the election, which would put the irrigation election in July if everything goes as planned.  

“The board is working diligently to run a proper election,” Eschenbacher said of the work being done to resolve the issue. He added that the current board members will continue to serve on the board until the election can be administered.   

Rosman said a “perfect storm” created the election problem. She explained that former executive manager Johanna Clark updated all the records for several years until the second half of 2017. Clark was dismissed when funds were found to be missing from the budget. No one on the board knew the process Clark was using to update the records or even that it needed to be done. 

Another issue with the election concerns designee forms. Swenson said Sen. Dan Salomon of Ronan is working on Senate Bill 116 to revise the need for voters to designate one person to vote on property with multiple owners. He said if the bill passes it will simplify the irrigation districts’ election process. Board members have said that passing the bill before the July election would solve any issues those voters could have with the designee process. 

In other irrigation district news, the operation and maintenance fees from the Flathead District were paid for the year. The Mission and Jocko Districts paid half of the fee. 

“There is a rumor that the Mission and Jocko aren’t going to pay the full amount, but we are paying it in two halves, and we’ve paid the first half,” he said. “We have to wait for the money from the property tax payments to come in before we pay the second half in July.”    

Swenson said the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a spring meeting and reported that water quotas for this year will be measured at point seven. He said last year they were at point eight. The water level, he said, is projected to be down a bit due to lower snowpack levels.  

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