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Flathead Joint Board of Control votes for new election

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ST. IGNATIUS –  Chairman of the Flathead Joint Board of Control Boone Cole began the Monday, May 23 meeting with a prayer due to a high level of contention concerning recent issues. 

During the meeting a lawsuit was delivered, newly elected board members weren’t seated, a vote to seat them was denied, a vote was made to hold a new election, and a board member claimed the board is illegal. 

A packed room full of people waited to see if three newly elected board members from the May 3 election would take seats on the board. As the meeting progressed, the chairs on the board remained filled with members of the board prior to the election. 

Janette Rosman and David Lake were sworn in during a separate Flathead District meeting. Ray Swensen of the Mission District has not been sworn in. The three elected candidates remained in the audience.

Chairman Cole was handed a lawsuit at the beginning of the meeting filed by a group of irrigators that stated the three candidates needed to be seated. It also questions the legality of how the board was formed several years ago. 

In a prior meeting, nine of the eleven board members voted to cancel the election that would seat those three candidates because they felt the election was improperly conducted. 

The initial problem began when about 800 ballots were not mailed out due to a new requirement that one person needs to be designated to vote for property with multiple owners by filing out a form. Another issue came about after the election when people reported that they didn’t receive ballots in the mail. 

With those issues in mind, the board debated whether the blame lies with the joint board or the Lake County Election Office.

Board member Gene Posivio said that the joint board paid the county election office to conduct the election.

“Why is it this board’s fault the election wasn’t run properly?” he said. “The county messed up. They didn’t do their job.”

Member Dick Erb said he felt there were problems with the election including the fact that he didn’t receive an election ballot in the mail like several others. He added that some of the responsibility for election problems are with the county and some of it is with the board.

Erb said that it’s the initial parties’ responsibility to monitor and supply guidelines for a project when it’s contracted out. 

He thinks part of the blame should go to the board in regards to not notifying voters about the forms to designate one voter. He said he was originally told that the board didn’t know about the need for those forms, but later found out that the board was notified.

Lake County Attorney Steven Eschenbacher said in an earlier interview with the Valley Journal that the FJBC was notified by email on February 29 of this year that they needed to inform voters of election changes.

During the meeting, Erb continued to say that the board received the email but not all of the members were informed about it.

“The election board should have contacted all members on the board,” he said. 

FJBC Clerk Johanna Clark said that after the initial email was received in February concerning the changes in election rules, she waited for the county to formulate a document with those changes.

“I didn’t receive that document until March,” she said. The document then went to the FJBC legal department before irrigators were informed. 

If blame is set aside, Erb asked the FJBC lawyers at the meeting “Where do we go from here?” He said that the board had an election, it was challenged, now how does it get resolved?

FJBC attorney Bruce Fredrickson said he can only give his opinion but he thinks if a new election is organized, the results would most likely be the same, but many board members said the important thing is that everyone gets to vote.

Fredrickson added that a person in a “black robe” (referring to a judge) needs to make the ultimate decision on the matter about who belongs on the board. Although, he said that the county and the board don’t need to go down that road if they can come to an agreement to “avoid lawsuits and look for means least likely to result in litigation.”

Board member Jerry Laskody said that ballots not being sent out, no secrecy envelopes with ballots, and the needed forms seems to him like a problem with “tampering or gross incompetence” on the part of Lake County.

County attorney Eschenbacher earlier said that some ballots couldn’t legally be sent out unless the forms were filled out. He said that the law requiring an out-of-state voter to use a proxy to cast a vote is a problem. He said the issue is being taken to legislators in an effort to change it.

After several hours of discussion, board member Tim Orr made a motion to call a special election to make sure all irrigators get a ballot. The motion passed. It was determined that the election should be held on September 12 or sooner. It was also discussed that the board might contract the election to another county.

Erb made a motion to allow the newly elected candidates to remain valid until the outcome of the special election is decided. Board member Paul Guenzler seconded the motion. Chairman Cole declared the motion out of order because the board had voted at a previous meeting to cancel the election.

The board continued with items on the agenda. A motion was made to put the FJBC building back under the ownership of all of the districts. It was transferred to the Flathead District several years ago. The Flathead District held an impromptu meeting to transfer the building back to the FJBC. The motion to put the building back under the joint board was approved. 

“For the record this is an illegal vote,” Erb said abstaining from the vote. “You are not the Flathead District.”

Regular board meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month in the FJBC office. 

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