GFPS certifies election results, expresses concern with the process

In a 4-3 vote, the Great Falls Public Schools board voted to certify the results of their May 2 election.

Superintendent Tom Moore said during the May 22 board meeting that they had requested additional information from Sandra Merchant, the county clerk and recorder, including details on inconsistencies and the cost, but had not yet received a response.

He said the district asked the county attorney’s office for information and received election result data that differed from the data provided by the elections office by 75 votes.

Moore said that based on the information the district has received, there were 495 registered absentee voters in the GFPS district who were not sent ballots.

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Moore said that staff was recommending the board accept the results, but with serious concerns about the process.

He said that since the top three vote getters, incumbents Bill Bronson, Kim Skornogoski and Amie Thompson, won by clear majorities.

The board still has the option to pursue legal action despite accepting the results, according to staff and the board’s attorney Jean Faure.

Moore told the board that they could postpone the canvass until May 26 since they have 25 days from the election to canvass under state law, or could ask a judge to grant an extension while awaiting additional information from Merchant.

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Bill Bronson, board member, said that he was concerned the district would be presented with an “unreasonable” bill that was in excess of the $41,000 estimate Merchant previously provided.

He said that the district could opt not to pay a bill above that estimate and the county could sue. He said that in that process the county might provide justification of the additional cost since they haven’t answered the district’s repeated requests for a bill

But, the elections office “can’t substantiate the pain and agony of what you’ve put this community through,” with election irregularities.

Faure said that no other school district in Montana has faced a similar issue.

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Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations director, said that if the board didn’t certify the election and a judge didn’t grant an extension, the board could appoint the incumbents to the board for a year and they’d have to run again next year.

Faure said that in certifying the results, the board is “not endorsing the process. We know there were errors and statutory deviations.”

Faure said that they could delay the action in hopes of getting more information from Merchant, but “I don’t think she will respond without some form of a court order.”

Pete Fontana, of the local election protection committee, said that two other precincts weren’t included in the May 2 election.

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Moore said that those precincts weren’t in their data from last year’s election and that district staff has requested that information from the county but not yet received a response.

Bronson said that in terms of the law, anyone challenging the election would likely have to show that the results would have been different if it weren’t for the inconsistencies.

Kim Skornogoski, board member, asked staff if the county attorney’s office had offered any help to GFPS.

Moore said, “they informed me they cannot make her or make that office do anything,” they can only offer guidance and advice.

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Moore said he called again on May 22 for the district’s bill for election costs and was told it wasn’t available and the elections office didn’t know when it would be available and they’d have to check with their legal counsel.

Patrick said that in years past, county elections officials provided the bill when they met with district officials to review election results within the 25 day window for a canvass.

Gordon Johnson, board chair, said he was voting to certify the election results so staff could go back to the district’s business of education.

“I’ve seen the toll that this has taken on our staff,” Johnson said.

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Skornogoski voted against certifying the election, but that she’d been willing to consider it later if they received more information.

“I struggle to endorse election results that we know are flawed,” she said.

Bronson voted to certify the results, “with some trepidation.”

“This has taken a huge toll on our staff,” he said.

Bronson said that his vote to accept the results but did “not in any way shape or form accept the way that Ms. Merchant and the people she had working with her, conducted this election. Something was clearly wrong. Whether it was sheer incompetence or whether it was design or some combination of the two.”

He said that if the bill is different from the estimate, that it should come to the board for a vote.

Bronson said he would not vote to pay anything unreasonable.

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Mark Finnicum, board member, said he asked himself if it was “incompetence or breaking the law. I don’t see it as breaking the law.”

He said that the lack of response from the county to the school district’s questions is unacceptable, but he doesn’t think there will be answers without a court order.

Marlee Sunchild, board member, voted against certifying the results because “I can’t vote for something where I feel the results were flawed.”

Amie Thompson, board member, said that she was on the fence about certifying the results, so she voted no.

Paige Turoski, board member, said the May 2 election was “absolutely incompetence and our voters deserve better.”

She said that it was notable to her that the losing candidates weren’t challenging the results so she voted in favor of certifying the results.