Court appoints monitor for June 6 library levy election

District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert said during a May 18 hearing that she is appointing a monitor to oversee the Great Falls Public Library levy election that is set for June 6.

The library board asked the county earlier this month to appoint a monitor to ensure the election was conducted properly given issues raised of irregularities.

Sandra Merchant, the clerk and recorder, refused, and the library board filed suit in District Court on May 10 asking the court to appoint a monitor.

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Gilbert said she will sign an order appointing Lynn Deroche, the county’s former election supervisor, as the monitor.

Raph Graybill, the library’s lawyer, is drafting an order by May 19, that the county’s legal team has until 10 a.m. May 22 to review and Gilbert said she will sign the order encapsulating her directives from the May 18 hearing on Monday.

Cascade County’s lawyer representing Merchant and the commission, objected saying a monitor was unnecessary and that the court was the legal entity to take any action regarding election irregularities.

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Gilbert said that in this case, the short time frame “creates an unusual circumstance for the court” in determining a solution.

She said the county’s attorney is correct in that the court has the authority to act and cannot delegate that authority to a third party, but that the court is not able to be in the election office overseeing daily operations.

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“That does raise the matter of the need for information to be reported to the court,” for the process to be effective, Gilbert said.

Based on state law and the arguments presented to the court, Gilbert said “there are sufficient irregularities and concerns” to grant the library’s request for a monitor.

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She said the legal requirements to demonstrate a public interests were “very clearly in favor” of the library board.

Gilbert said the court often appoints others to assist in carrying out its duties and that this would be a similar instance.

In this case, the monitor will report to the court, copies of which will be provided to attorneys for both sides and filed with the court so that they are publicly available, Gilbert said.

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If any irregularities or violations of law are reported to the court, Gilbert said the court will be able to address in a timely manner, rather than waiting until later in the process, causing the library irreparable harm should the the election be invalidated.

Gilbert said she will order Merchant to cooperate with the monitor.

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The attorney for the county objected to the appointment of a monitor entirely and specifically to Deroche, arguing that she has a history with Merchant and that the lawsuit was politically motivated.

Gilbert said she is ordering all parties to be professional and cordial.

During the hearing, Graybill told the court that shortly before the hearing, a couple had come to the library with their library levy ballots.

In their envelopes, the couple received their ballots, secrecy and affirmation envelopes, but also affirmation envelopes for voters with different names and addresses.

Graybill argued that the errors made in the May 2 election and reports of errors being made in the June 6 library election “are not normal,” and necessitated the need for court intervention.

The county argued that the library has effectively operated as its own monitor so far, but Graybill argued that the library wouldn’t be able to do so in the next phase of the election, as its own matter is on the ballot.

Elizabeth Lund, representing the county, said that the library had already brought issues to the court’s attention and a monitor was unnecessary.

Lund argued that appointing an election monitor would set a “dangerous precedent” in that anyone could request monitors of public officials.

Lund said that the move would be “effectively spying on Ms. Merchant.”

Lund argued that because Deroche has a history working in Cascade County elections under Merchant’s predecessor, it was inappropriate to appoint her as the monitor.

The county recommended four other people as potential monitors to which Graybill said they didn’t have negative information but hadn’t had time to thoroughly review those recommendations yet.

In a rebuttal, Graybill said that there is “no evidence” before the court that political motives are at play and that the library board shares Merchant’s goal of a successful and proper election.

Graybill said the county suggested that it’s improper to monitor the activities of election officials, which is said is “simply untrue” as the public is granted the right of participation in state law and the exceptions to public participation are limited.

When elected officials set out to act on the public’s behalf, “we get to watch,” Graybill said.