Library board votes to authorize potential legal action for upcoming levy election

The Great Falls Public Library board voted during a May 5 emergency meeting to authorize the library director in consultation with the board chair to implement the legal strategy as recommended by legal counsel.

The library board voted in March to retain Raph Graybill as legal counsel strictly to assist with the library levy election.

Susie McIntyre, library director, said that the possible legal action they’re considering is asking the court to oversee their levy election set for June 6.

McIntyre said it’s not a punitive move, but to ensure their election is conducted properly.

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McIntyre said Graybill and his firm are investigating credible reports of election issues that occurred during the May 2 school board election.

Ballots haven’t yet been printed and are to be mailed on May 17.

County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski asked McIntyre about her communications with the county.

McIntyre said she hadn’t met with commissioners in person, but had sent emails and that city commissioners had spoken with county commissioners about election issues.

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Grulkowski asked if she approached the county attorney about concerns about elections.

“The concern is that something illegal has happened, when to the county’s knowledge,” nothing was illegal, Grulkowski said.

McIntyre said that there are credible reports that the Fort Shaw Irrigation District election was conducted improperly, voters were turned away from 7-8 a.m. on May 2 at the polls; signatures were not checked properly; ballots weren’t sent to voters in some precincts and then they were not allowed to vote on May 2.

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She said that Graybill is investigating those concerns, and others, and is working with the county attorney.

Grulkowski said those inconsistencies have happened before in elections.

There were few formal reports of those issues in past elections in recent years.

There were issues with the West Side Flood and Drainage District’s May 2020 election that the court invalidated in December 2020 and was redone in 2021, as reported during the process by The Electric.

Grulkoswki is the county’s representative to the library board.

Library officials have been discussing need for increased funding for years.

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The library conducted a master plan process that began in late 2021 and the plan was adopted in September 2022.

City Commissioners approved the resolution to send the library levy, in the form of a city charter amendment, to the ballot on Feb. 21.

The resolution and ballot language was transmitted to the elections office on Feb. 22.

She said they’ve received limited communication and information from the elections office and want to ensure the election is conducted properly.

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McIntyre said they haven’t yet seen the ballot or ballot instructions.

Jessica Crist, a library board member, said the board doesn’t have interest in litigating the election that already took place, but is interested in ensuring their election is done correctly.

“There’s some nervousness,” she said. “It’s the next election that we’re really concerned about.”

Grulkowski said the ballot was sent to ES&S but isn’t yet available for review.

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McIntyre said that the ballot should have been certified on March 23, according to the Montana Secretary of State calendar.

“We’re several weeks behind on that,” McIntyre said.

Ann Bulger, library board member, said they have been asking for information and “there haven’t been answers to the questions,” and that’s why they felt compelled to discuss the issue with a lawyer.

Sam DeForest said there were glitches in the May 2 election and she’s concerned about the time crunch for the library’s June 6 elections.

“We don’t have time for glitches or problems,” DeForest said. “We can’t afford errors.”

Jessica Crist, library board member, said “we’re hoping there are no glitches, but what we don’t have right now is the confidence.”

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Beth Cummings, a member of the public, said that there had been changes for the elections office, including the state’s switch to Elect MT as the voter registration system.

She said the duplicate ballots were due to the switch to Elect MT, which was implemented in January.

Sandra Merchant, county clerk and recorder, told the Great Falls Public Schools superintendent that it was the fault of Elect MT for the duplicate ballots, and others have repeated that claim.

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On April 20, GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore read that in an email from Merchant during a press conference.

The Electric asked the Montana Secretary of State if they were aware of that issue and their role.

Richie Melby, SOS communications director, said “our office reviewed the ballot label file that was generated by the system and sent to Cascade County elections. According to the review, there were no duplicates found in that file.”

Cummings said the SOS didn’t train Merchant.

The Electric also asked SOS in April about training for election officials.

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Melby said, “all county election administrators have online access to training resources, including signature verification. The Secretary of State’s Office hosts in-person election administrator certification training in even-numbered years to discuss a variety of topics, including any new legislation and/or rules, and a refresh of those training resources mentioned above. County elections offices are aware of these training resources to assist in administering their elections on behalf of their voters.”

There have been concerns by some elections watchers and library supporters about reports of ‘no library levy’ stickers being distributed among volunteers in the elections office during business hours.

Linda Madsen, a volunteer, said she knows of one woman who was volunteering in the elections office who confessed to having a bunch of the stickers in her bag that fell out and some people took them. She said she thought it was an accident.

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Sandra Merchant, the county clerk and recorder and elections administrator, went to the podium to speak and introduced herself as a county resident.

She said that when she comes to the office, “politics goes out the door. I am not there to be a politician. I follow the law.”

Merchant said the double ballot issue wasn’t anything new and has been an issue for years.

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Lynn Deroche, who has worked in the elections office for 16 years but left in February for another county job, said double ballot issues were uncommon and typically when someone moved or updated their registration and they’d void out the duplicate and merge the voter in the system.

Merchant said that “with no training through this election, we have more staff and are developing our processes.”

She said she can’t guarantee the vote tabulating machine won’t have problems and she’s trying to get ES&S to send a technician for maintenance.

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In past years, a technician has been onsite to help with any technical problems.

Whitney Olson, library board chair, asked Grulkowski about the process to volunteer since many library supports have expressed interest.

Grulkowski said they should go to the office to find out and sign up and encouraged them to go now.

“You want the levy to be properly planned out, let’s start now,” Grulkowski said.

Greg Pinksi, a local lawyer and former district court judge, sent a letter to County Attorney Josh Racki this week informing him that the county must retain all communications, documents, electronic data, audio and video recordings, and other tangible objects related to any recent, ongoing and future elections.

Pinski wrote that his firm is representing Pete Fontana to investigate claims of election irregularities.

A lawsuit has not yet been filed.