Despite opposition that significantly outpaced support during six hours of public testimony, Cascade County Commissioners Joe Briggs and Jim Larson still voted to strip election duties from the Clerk and Recorders Office. Commissioner Rae Grulkowski was the lone no vote on Resolution 23-62, which passed 2-1.
The proposed action didn’t sit well with the majority of speakers at Tuesday’s Cascade County Commission meeting, which was moved Exposition Hall in Expo Park in anticipation of a big crowd wanting to speak on the controversial resolution.
With the resolution’s passage, Cascade County will become another of the handful of Montana counties which have an appointed rather than elected, election administrator. Montana Code Annotated §13-1-301 allocates election duties to the county clerk and recorder, “unless the governing body of the county designates another official or appoints an election administrator.”
The governing body, Cascade County Commissioners, took advantage of this statue in the MCA to propose the resolution removing election duties from the clerk/recorder.
Comments against the resolution included concerns about the financial impacts of adding the new county position of election administrator, lack of cooperation from previous Clerk/Recorder/Elections Administrator Rina Fontana-Moore, her staff and commissioners in the handoff of election duties to Merchant, allegations of hostility and harassment of Merchant by supporters of Fontana-Moore and assertions that Merchant ran the Election Office according to the law while the previous clerk/recorder did not.
However, most resolution opponents expressed one common theme — removal of the election duties from Merchant would disenfranchise the majority of voters who elected her and would negate the will of the people, since the position they voted on was a combined clerk/recorder/election administrator, not just a clerk/recorder.
Supporters of the resolution focused mainly on alleged mistakes made by Merchant, including anomalies in a flood district election which led to a lawsuit. However, County Attorney Josh Racki stated at the beginning of the meeting that his department investigated various claims against Merchant and found no illegalities in Merchant’s actions related to elections.
Former Clerk/Recorder/Election Administrator Fontana-Moore also faced a lawsuit brought by a resident in a flood district in 2020, 13 years after she took office. The judge ordered a new election as it was found Fontana-Moore had sent ballots to all residents of the flood district and not just the landowners, as required by law.
Merchant faced demands to resign beginning early in her term when former County Commissioner Jane Weber; Pete Fontana, brother of former Clerk/Recorder/Election Administrator Rina Fontana-Moore; and local activist Jasmine Taylor formed the Election Protection Committee.
The committee actively solicited on Facebook for citizens to report any election anomalies directly to them and not the county elections office, and also submitted a complaint to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, who determined it was unsubstantiated.
Today’s county commission action comes on the heels of another recent controversial decision that changed the way the county commission chair position is filled. Commissioners Briggs and Larson voted to change from a 2-year rotation of commissioners serving as chair, to a chair selected by commissioners each year.
Commissioner Grulkowski, current chair, voted against the change.
Grulkowski became chair of the commission in 2023, after winning against Don Ryan in the November 2022 election. Ryan had been appointed in early 2021 to fill in for retiring Commissioner Jane Weber until the next general election. State law then required Ryan run again in 2022 to keep the seat through 2024, the remainder of Weber’s term.
Grulkowski’s win over Ryan in 2022 for commissioner also put her in the chair position due to rotation. Until the change voted in by Commissioners Briggs and Larson, Grulkowski was originally slated to remain chair through 2024.