Court orders Merchant to mail library levy ballots by May 17; sets hearing on library request for monitor
A Livingston judge has assumed the case against Sandra Merchant and Cascade County over the library levy election.
Local judges recused themselves from the case, which is common when a case is filed against Cascade County and local officials.
Judge Brenda Gilbert, a district court judge out of Livingston, has assumed the case and set a hearing for 1 p.m. May 23 on the Great Falls Public Library board’s request for the court to appoint a monitor over their levy election over concern’s of Merchant’s handling of elections so far.
Merchant was elected as clerk and recorder in November and assumed office in January.
Since then, she’s supervised at least three elections, including the May 2 Great Falls Public Schools board election.
“Each of these elections has featured severe errors and unlawful deviation from statutory requitements,” according to the library’s suit. “The errors and unlawful deviations are severe enough that they threaten the validity of the elections.”
The library suit alleges a serious of errors in the May 2 elections, including improper signature verification, disenfranchising voters by not sending absentee ballots properly or at all to eligible voters, not allowing voters in a subprecinct to vote, opening polls at hour late, improperly folding ballots, sending ballots to ineligible voters in the West Side Flood and Drainage District, and anti-library lobbying within the election office, among other issues.
In setting the hearing, Gilbert ordered that Merchant’s office “ensure that ballots are sent to absentee electors by May 17, 2023, in complete and accurate format. Respondents shall further ensure that all other deadlines relative to the library mill levy special election are met in a timely manner.”
Raph Graybill, pro bono lawyer for the library board, filed another motion on May 12 to notify the court of another error made by Merchant’s office.
The election office published a required notice of the election in the May 12 edition of the Tribune. The notice lists the library levy election date as May 2, 2023, but that was the school election and the library election is set for June 6.
The notice also states that ballots will be mailed May 17-22, but state law requires absentee ballots be mailed 20 days prior to the election, which is May 17, according to Graybill’s motion.
According to several sources, Merchant ordered the ballots on Wednesday and they have been printed as of May 12.
The City Commission voted Feb. 21 to send the question to the voters in the form of an amendment to the city charter to increase the levy for the Great Falls Public Library from the current maximum of two mills to 17 mills.
If approved, the city would be able to levy up to 17 mills annually and the additional 15 mills would generate about $1.55 million, increasing the library’s operating budget to about $2.7 million annually, using current tax figures.
Without the increased funding, Library Director Susie McIntyre has said the library would face a budget shortage leading to staff cuts, reduced community services, fewer hours open to the public, an inability to meet state minimum standards and the loss of state library aid.
On May 8, Graybill sent a letter to the County Commission, County Attorney Josh Racki and Merchant.
Merchant responded and refused, according to the library board.
The library board filed their suit in District Court May 10 asking the court to appoint a monitor.