Generic filters
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in excerpt
Search in content
Filter by content type
Choose One/Select all
Comments
Taxonomy terms
Users
Filter by Categories
Business/Economy
Commentary
Criminal Justice
Defense/Military
Environment
Education
Gov & Politics
Health
Human Rights
Immigration
Labor
Lifestyle
Media/Showbiz
Misinformation
Science and Tech
Viral Content
World
Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Gov & Politics

Longtime Cascade County election staff accused of maleficence in Irrigation District election

Plaintiffs in a case against the Cascade County Elections Office over its handling of a May 2023 election alleged the office knowingly went against state statute – and fault included ousted Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore’s former staff.

According to a court filing submitted Wednesday, Lynn DeRoche, who worked alongside Moore for 16 years and for current Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant for about a month last year, gave Merchant faulty advice around procedures for sending out ballots in an irrigation district election.

Merchant, who was inexperienced in elections prior to assuming office, beat out Moore for the job by 36 votes in 2022, and her tenure has been plagued by problems like ballots not fitting in return envelopes and resulted in legal intervention in the Great Falls Library’s mill levy election.

In December, county commissioners took a controversial vote to remove election duties from Merchant and make the job a nonpartisan position under the commission’s purview.

This latest development in the lawsuit alleges Moore’s former staff, DeRoche, was actually behind the error in the irrigation election.

The filing quoted emails showing DeRoche and the irrigation district’s clerk, upon realizing the error, chose to stay the course regardless, even though it was against state statute.

These details were included in a brief submitted to Cascade County District Court to request summary judgment in a case where plaintiffs argue the county elections department, commissioners, Fort Shaw Irrigation District and district board members failed to administer the district’s board election according to statute. They are requesting a re-do.

Plaintiffs in the case include Elliot Merja and Riley Denning, who both lost elections to the Fort Shaw Irrigation District board in the May 2023 election. Plaintiffs Timothy and Laurie Miller own property in the West Great Falls Flood and Drainage Control District and allege the county mishandled that board election as well.

Attorney for plaintiffs Steven Potts told the Daily Montanan on Thursday he would be requesting summary judgment for the West Great Falls district part of the case in coming weeks.

In this week’s court filing, plaintiffs said Merchant “did not know what she was doing” and was “undermined by undependable and malevolent people,” pointing at DeRoche.

“Together, they manipulated information about voting processes, deterred voters from casting ballots, and allowed others to cast ballots based on phony designations of agents,” the filing read; agent designation refers to a technical way voting takes place in irrigation districts.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki was not immediately available for comment Thursday. When reached by phone early Thursday, DeRoche said she had not yet read the document; she did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory where an atypical election was fumbled by the Cascade County Elections Office – with the county permitting a special election in 2021 in the West Great Falls Flood Control and Drainage District after ballots were distributed incorrectly.

The court filing submitted this week starts with a quote from former President Donald Trump comparing U.S. elections to that in third world countries, and claiming the election in Cascade County was a prime example of that assessment.

***

Irrigation district elections are run differently than a typical election where one registered voter is allocated one ballot.

Property owners in the district are allocated one vote per acre of irrigable land. Basically, the more property you own in the district, the more say you have in the election.

Property owners also have a few options for how they can submit their ballots. Co-owners can decide one of them will vote on both of their behalf, they can divide their votes based on an agreed-upon percentage ownership, or can designate an agent to vote for them on their behalf.

In order to designate an agent to vote on a property owner’s behalf, the owner has to submit a document with the secretary of the district indicating the agent’s authority to vote. Prior to the 2019 legislative session, property owners had to let the irrigation district know who they selected to be their designated agent for each election.

But in 2019, Senate Bill 116 changed that requirement, so property owners would only need to tell the district who they selected as their designated agent if it changed. The filing said the county stores these forms on behalf of the district.

DeRoche, advising Merchant in a January 2023 email, referenced the rules for Irrigation District designations before they changed in 2019, saying letters needed to be sent out for property owners to designate their voting authority, according to the filing.

DeRoche linked the updated statute in her email, and the filing said Merchant did not catch the difference between what DeRoche said and what was in the linked statute. Merchant asked DeRoche for a sample letter to send to the irrigation district they’ve used before, and DeRoche said she would send a copy – which the filing noted did not include the updated statute.

On Jan. 20, 2023, district secretary Charla Merja sent an email to DeRoche saying the statute was confusing.

“The way I’m reading it [Section 85-7-1710], if there has been no change in ownership since the last election, they [the electors] don’t have to do anything,” the filing quoted Merja writing.

DeRoche responded less than 10 minutes later agreeing that’s how she also read the law. She said the office didn’t have access to the letters designating agents for the district as the records were sealed with the election in 2021.

Merja responded shortly after: “I won’t say anything about changes if you don’t have access to the previous forms. We’ll just have everyone complete them…”

The filing said Merja sent out notices on Feb. 14 to property owners in the district with the outdated and incorrect information, with emphasis, saying property owners “MUST complete a new [designation] form” and return it to the district to get a ballot.”

Plaintiffs said DeRoche and Merja did this as a “matter of convenience for themselves” and these emails marked where they “crossed over the line to nefarious conduct which should not be crossed.”

“Ms. Deroche and Ms. Merja simply decided to ‘bury’ the prior designations, disregard them, and misrepresent to electors that new designations ‘MUST’ be submitted because this was expedient,” the filing read. “They did not want to look them up in the prior election records.”

Charla Merja could not be reached for comment Thursday. (Potts said Charla Merja was married to Elliot Merja’s brother before a divorce about a decade ago, but there is no longer a family connection.)

The filing also noted a majority of the Fort Shaw Irrigation District Board voted in an April 2023 meeting to require designations for co-owned land and to certify only the designations submitted in 2023, going against the requirements in the updated statute.

The filing characterized this as a “self-serving” motion for Commissioner Kennard Steinke, saying it enabled him to win re-election over plaintiff Riley Denning. Denning alleged he did not receive the correct number of votes he is entitled to for the acres he co-owns.

The filing claimed Steinke’s designation was defective another way as well, noting his wife and co-owner of his parcel had not signed the designation, but that public officials looked the other way and he received a ballot.

Plaintiffs noted this as only a snapshot of the issues with designation forms in 2023.

“Pointing out all of the issues with respect to the designations certified by FSID would take more pages than are allowed for briefs in this district,” the filing read.

The filing outlines what plaintiffs see as a total of 13 errors associated with the Fort Shaw Irrigation District Election. Plaintiffs said a new election should be conducted within 85 days after the court enters its findings.

The court had previously scheduled a jury trial in the case for July 22.

This article from the Daily Montanan appears in this post, with permission, under a Creative Commons BY ND-NC 4.0 license.

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in excerpt
Search in content
Filter by content type
Choose One/Select all
Comments
Taxonomy terms
Users
Filter by Categories
Business/Economy
Commentary
Criminal Justice
Defense/Military
Environment
Education
Gov & Politics
Health
Human Rights
Immigration
Labor
Lifestyle
Media/Showbiz
Misinformation
Science and Tech
Viral Content
World