On November 7 Cascade County voters struggled to vote in another confusing and poorly administered election. In the run up to the election, voters contacted a volunteer monitoring group, The Election Protection Committee, with a host of problems including some voters who did not receive their ballot in the mail and others who received numerous ballots in the mail. Surprisingly, some voters residing outside the city limits received ballots even though they were ineligible to vote in yesterday’s city election. Ironically, still others were denied a ballot because the Clerk and Recorder’s office could not decipher city boundary lines and erroneously did not believe they were city residents.
When election day arrived, voters discovered they could not obtain a ballot nor deposit their voted ballots at the fairgrounds. For decades, voters could obtain a ballot, replace a damaged or lost ballot or same-day register and vote at the fairgrounds for the municipal election – 108 people showed up yesterday to vote and were sent downtown to the Election Office. In addition, 180 voted ballots were not permitted to be deposited at the fairgrounds, instead voters were instructed to deposit their voted ballots at the Election Office. There, voters encountered difficulties finding parking and long lines because of the limited space. No one knows how many of the people who started their voting journey at the fairgrounds simply gave up and did not vote because of time constraints and inconvenience.
It’s easy to say, “Well, election problems didn’t really matter because of the wide margins between the winning and losing candidates.” Only 73 votes separated Shannon Wilson and Eric Hinebauch in their race for city commission. Sandra Merchant’s foul ups could account for that difference. Just like the school board trustee election last spring, none of these candidates are likely to contest this election (even if they think there were significant errors) because of the potential cost to re-run an election.
That’s all well and good, but the next elections Merchant will oversee include all of the state-wide offices and a US Senate and Congressional Races. These campaigns will have the resources to challenge any problems they see. The truth is Sandra Merchant’s incompetence could determine the control of the US Senate in the next general election. And that is a scary thought.
The Election Protection Committee released the following statement this evening detailing numerous issues with the Great Falls Municipal Election.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, November 6, 2023
From: Election Protection Committee
Municipal Election Problems Raise Voter Suppression Concerns
GREAT FALLS – Election day in Great Falls was plagued with widespread confusion, resulting in numerous voters being turned away at the Expo Park. Sandra Merchant failed to make any effort to inform local media and the general public that voting would only take place at the Courthouse Annex building. For over a decade, election day voting has taken place at the Expo Park. Merchant rented the Expo Park but inexplicably chose to use the location for vote counting only. Volunteers with the Election Protection Committee spent the day monitoring issues at both locations. Volunteers note that by 4:30pm at least eighty-five (85) voters had been turned away from voting at the Expo Park and told to go to the Annex. Individuals brought 175 ballots to Expo Park and were told they had to deposit them at the Annex. Voters at the Annex reported issues such as not receiving their ballots, and long lines to also prompted some voters to leave without having cast their ballot.
The Election Protection Committee has received many emails from voters with complaints about the municipal election including the ones seen today. Numerous errors have been reported. Merchant’s explanation for these errors and her claim that these issues are resolved is disputable. Reports suggest voters are being disenfranchised, a subtle form of voter suppression.
Complaints run the gamut. Some voters did not receive a ballot in the mail. Some voters received multiple ballots and the explanation from the election office of a “printer jam” cannot be blamed. As Jane Weber, spokesperson for the Election Protection Committee explained, “ a printer jam cannot generate two ballots having different bar codes and different voter identification numbers for the same voter. That is caused by human error in the election office, likely double entries created in the voter database.” More concerning is that both of those ballots could be voted, and the vote tabulator would never detect the error. Weber further explained, “for those who think a hand-count would catch these double ballots, think again, the human eye would never distinguish these subtle differences in the numbers and codes during the signature verification process.”
One household reported they did not receive their ballots. When they visited the election office, they were informed they did not live within the city limits. The voter submitted this email message to the Election Protection Committee, “I am at the election office now and am being told I am designated rural and thus do not qualify for a ballot. In fact, I do reside in the city. I had to insist this issue be escalated to double or triple check. I was just told by one of the county employees here that Sandra Merchant doubled checked this and confirmed my residence is in the city. I’m still in the election office waiting to hear what is next. I feel there are likely many voters being disenfranchised due to errors this election.”
One household reported receiving three ballots for a deceased family member. That might be understandable if one ballot had been sent and if the deceased had recently passed. Weber said, “in this disturbing situation, the individual died the last week of December 2022, and their name should have been removed from the voter database by the current election office administration who assumed their duties just a week later in January 2023.”
One voter who did not receive a ballot visited the election office to determine the problem. The voter was told their ballot was undeliverable. The voter questioned the undeliverable status since ballots had successfully been delivered to the address for decades. When the ballot was retrieved by the election office staff, the street address on the mailing packet had been smeared and was unreadable, clearly a printing issue. The post office returned the ballot to the election office, and no further action was taken by the election staff. BUT, the voter’s name was clearly printed and could easily have been looked up in the voter database. The address label could have been corrected and remailed. INSTEAD, the ballot never arrived and the voter was never notified. Had the voter not taken the initiative to track down their ballot, or if the voter had not been able to take time away from work to visit the election office, the voter would likely not have voted in this election.
The complaints received by the EPC indicate mistakes continue to occur in the election office. The EPC will continue to monitor election errors and reminds voters to contact [email protected] to report ballot issues or concerns.
Weber said, “We will continue to hold Sandra Merchant accountable until safe and secure elections are restored in Cascade County.”
“Stop Voter Suppression”
“Demand Election Integrity”
“Act Now to Protect Our Elections”
Concerned voters braved the gloomy Fall weather to demonstrate in front of the courthouse annex today. The demand? Remove election duties from the Clerk and Recorder.
Since her election, Sandra Merchant has created chaos in Cascade County. After making significant errors in multiple elections, Merchant is now being sued (in her official capacity as Clerk and Recorder). Aggrieved parties in both the Westside Flood District and Fort Shaw Irrigation District elections are taking Merchant to court, and Cascade County taxpayers are footing the bill for Merchant’s defense. After both the county attorney and the Montana Association of Counties (MACO) declined to represent Merchant, a private attorney out of Bozeman was hired to provide her defense. Merchant’s incompetence was even enough for a judge to order a monitor for the Library Levy to assure the election was run lawfully.
Whether through ignorance or intentional maleficence, Sandra Merchant has shown that she is incapable of running accurate, fair, and transparent elections. Luckily, a solution to the Merchant problem is available. The County Commission has the legal authority to remove election duties from the Clerk and Recorder. Joe Briggs has long supported this plan, even offering a provision that will assure a County Commissioner who is up for election will not be involved in the supervision of the Election Administrator. This forward-thinking approach removes partisanship from election administration while providing increased accountability by making the Election Administrator a county employee. This is the measure protestors were out supporting today.
Calls to remove election duties from Sandra Merchant are expected to grow in the coming weeks. With a city election on the horizon, it appears Merchant has again waited until the very last moment to get ballots in the mail- a move that likely disenfranchises military voters, among others.
The citizen group calling themselves the Election Protection Committee (EPC) has been monitoring Merchant’s errors and has endorsed Commissioner Brigg’s proposal to remove election administration from the Clerk and Recorder. EPC member, Jane Weber, attended the demonstration with about 25 other voters. Weber explained, “We’re out here today to defend our right to vote. If we don’t have fair, accurate, and transparent elections, we don’t have a Democracy.”
A small group of Pro-Merchant protestors were also present. One was heard to remark that she’s been “wanting election integrity since 2020” seemingly referring to the same conspiracy theory that led to the January 6, 2020, attack on the United States Capitol. Asked if she had any response to this claim, Weber stated, “It is near impossible to reason with unreasonable people.”
In previous elections, the EPC tracked and monitored ballot errors and discovered such mistakes as voters receiving duplicate ballots, ballots sent to incorrect addresses, and ballots whose outer envelope did not match the name on the inner security envelope. The Election Protection Committee is again asking voters to contact them to report errors on their ballot. Information regarding ballot errors can be sent to the group at [email protected] .
The group notes that they will continue to monitor such errors and hold Sandra Merchant accountable until safe and secure elections are restored in Cascade County.
Montanan Withdraws from Presidential Race?
Did you know former Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton was running for President? Welp. . .not anymore. Stapleton announced he is throwing in the towel. Of course no one knew he was running, so it’s not much of a news story.
The Independent Record quoted Stapleton when he filed for the presidential race, “We’re more alike than we are different.” Stapleton said. “When you look at the last few years in America, we see chaos, dysfunction, dishonesty, disappointment. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re better than this.”
Quite a statement since Stapleton ran a Secretary of State’s Office that was the most incompetent and corrupt statewide office in recent memory. He was under constant criticism for self-dealing and corruption. He was accused of misuse of state vehicles and channeling lucrative state contracts to his political pals (See our related story about Stapleton’s friend Jake Eaton https://wtf406.com/2023/10/rosendale-slimed-in-new-tv-ads/ )
After leaving the Secretary of State’s Office, Stapleton embarked on a bizarre effort to become a country western singer. Not kidding, check it out for yourself.
Take a listen and drop us a note with your review.
The press reported that Stapleton has not announced who he will endorse in the Republican Primary for President. Who cares?
Despite repeatedly claiming that they are “fiscal conservatives,” our property taxes have increased under Republican control at the state and local level over just the last couple of years. And not just a little bit.
Proponents of mill levies (here and elsewhere) routinely tell us the impact of their proposal is a relatively small amount on a given home. They also routinely provide examples of low value houses. For example, Rocket Homes estimates the average value of a home in Cascade County is $305,581, not the $200,000 value that is being used by promoters of the City of Great Falls Safety Levy. Here’s a statement from their web page: “The Great Falls Public Safety Levy will cost approximately $280.11 a year for a home with an assessed market value for tax purposes of $200,000 if milled to the maximum.”
County Safety Levy + $56.00 Per Year
Last November voters approved a County Safety Levy which was promoted by Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and the County Commissioners, majority Republicans. The proposal was for raising $2.46 million annually. The estimated impact of the County Safety Levy on a $300,000 house in Great Falls was $56.00 per year. (As an aside, Sheriff Slaughter got a 35% raise after the levy passed).
Library Levy + $60.00 Per Year
Next up is the local library mill levy which passed this year. This levy added an estimated $60.00 per year to a $300,000 home. It’s important to note that $300,000 of the money from this levy did not go to the library and instead went to the city’s general fund.
Great Falls City Safety Levy +420.00 Per Year If Passed
Next up is Commissioner Rick Tryon’s pet project, the City of Great Falls Safety Levy, which will be decided in November. This is from the Safety Levy website: “Great Falls residents will see an annual increase in their property taxes. When fully implemented, the Great Falls Public Safety Levy will cost approximately $140.06 per year ($11.67 per month) for a home with an assessed market value for tax purposes of $100,000, and $280.11 per year ($23.34 per month) for a home with an assessed market value for tax purposes of $200,000 if milled to the maximum.“ Remember, the average cost of a home in Great Falls is over $300,000. If you use that value, the cost to an average homeowner will be more like $420.
Great Falls Safety Infrastructure Bond +$66.60 Per Year If Passed
But wait, there’s more. In addition, the City is proposing a bond election on the November ballot. The Electric describes the proposed bond election this way: “The bonds may be sold in one or more series, in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed Twenty-One Million One Hundred Seventy-Five Thousand and No/100 Dollars ($21,175,000.00), bearing interest at rates to be determined at the time of the sale, payable semiannually over the term not to exceed twenty years for each series of bonds.”
Depending on the assumptions one makes about the interest rate on the bonds and total valuation of property in the City, the property tax increase will be $66.60 per year for a $300,000 dollar home. https://theelectricgf.com/2023/06/23/city-commissioners-vote-to-send-public-safety-infrastructure-bond-to-the-november-ballot/
How Does all of this affect a below average citizen?
Just for fun let’s take a look at how this state property tax increase affects the property tax of the biggest promoter of the City’s Safety Levy, City Commissioner Rick Tryon. To do this, we took Rick’s house through the www.taxshiftmt.com web based property tax calculator. The value of Rick’s house is considerably below the average value for Cascade County, weighing in at $227,900. Rick’s total property tax increase thanks to the Governor and the Republican legislature is $371.83. Rounding his home value down to $200,000 to simplify the math, Rick will pay an additional $280 per year if the City Safety Levy passes. The Library levy added an additional $40, and the County safety levy added $37. The safety levy bond issuance would add an additional $44.40 per year. Add all that together and it’s an increase of $772 to Rick’s property taxes. In 2022, Rick’s property tax bill was $1962. When all of these changes take effect, it will be about $2734. . .almost a 40% increase in just one year.
State Legislature’s Increase Statewide Average Increase 45%
The Republican Montana Legislature in 2023 was a virtual orgy of tax giveaways to the wealthy and big corporations, while giving the average homeowner the largest property tax increase in recent memory. On average, a Montana homeowner’s property tax increase is 45% thanks to the Legislature and Administration.
Republicans had a supermajority at the legislature, and all Cascade County’s legislative seats are held by Republicans. The county commission and the sheriff are all Republican. Though the Great Falls City Commission is technically non-partisan, Republicans hold a majority on the Commission. Councilman Joe McKenney is a former Republican Legislator. Councilman Eric Hinebauch is Chair of the local Republican Central Committee, and Councilman Rick Tryon, who routinely spews right-wing talking points from his perch as a writer for a local blog and from his seat on the City Commission, has also run for office as a Republican.
Who’s the tax and spend party?
Note: In this article, we are talking about local mill levies, so we want to point out a couple of things. Figuring out the exact impact of mill levies can be difficult, because they usually just allow local jurisdictions to levy up to a maximum. They do not automatically result in a set amount of tax increases. The impact of mill levies also changes over time based on a number of things, including valuation of the jurisdiction’s entire tax base. Bottom line numbers can be squishy. Our figures are mostly taken from articles by The Electric and various websites.
Great Falls, Montana.
Last week, our own Jasmine Taylor submitted an ethics complaint against Great Falls City Commissioner Rick Tryon. It’s a fact-filled delight, so we know you want to check it out. Here it is in its entirety. Do you think the complaint has validity? Let us know in the comments.
The Ethics Complaint:
Please consider the following a formal complaint of potential ethics violations by City Commissioner Rick Tryon. All information contained within is based on information and belief. In the interest of brevity, I have included hyperlinks of relevant articles. The following are only a small sampling of relevant examples, however a thorough examination of all Tryon’s authorship in connection with his employer should be undertaken as part of a formal investigation into this complaint.
Issue 1: Employment Relationship Between Tryon and Stray Moose Productions
During his tenure as City Commissioner, Rick Tryon has concurrently maintained an employment relationship with Stray Moose Productions. Tryon has written numerous articles for a blog, E City Beat. Although E City Beat was not previously a registered business name in the state of Montana, it appears that E City Beat is owned and operated by Stray Moose Productions. As seen below, E City Beat’s contact information indicates emails are directed to Straymoose.com.
Further, Tryon’s LinkedIn profile lists him as an employee of Stray Moose Productions. Tryon notes that he is the “Information Systems Consultant” and has worked for Stray Moose Productions since 1999. Therefore, it appears that an employment relationship exists between Tryon and Stray Moose Productions, which logically extends to E City Beat. E City Beat allows for paid advertising on their website, and likely generates income for its owners.
Although Tryon undoubtedly maintains his rights to free speech while serving on the Commission, he is also bound by the standards laid out in the City of Great Falls’ Code of Ethics.
Tryon’s employment by Stray Moose Productions and his contributions to the blog, E City Beat, appear to be in violation of the following ethical codes:
2.21.050 – Ethical standards.
In addition to complying with the provisions of Mont. Code Ann. Title 2, Chapter 2, officers and employees of the City of Great Falls shall comply with the following provisions:
- No officer or employee of the City of Great Falls shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his or her governmental duties;
- No officer or employee shall act in his or her official capacity in any matter where he or she, a member of his or her immediate family, or any business organization in which he or she has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to:
- impair his or her objectivity or independence or judgment, or
- substantially conflict with the proper discharge of officer or employee’s governmental duties;
- No officer or employee shall undertake any private employment or service which might prejudice his or her independent judgment in the exercise of his or her official duties;
Regarding 2.21.050(A), and of particular concern is the relationship between Tryon’s authorship for E City Beat and his ability to faithfully carry out the duties of a City Commissioner. Blog viewership generates advertising revenue. Blog contents, headlines, and stories undoubtedly draw viewership which directly affects the revenue of the blog. Topics that are salacious and controversial may draw larger viewership. Therefore, it is advantageous for authors to write in such a manner, and cover such topics, that will create the greatest amount of engagement for the business.
Tryon has discussed multiple high-profile issues occurring within the city on his blog. In fact, while Great Falls has worked to address the housing crisis, Tryon wrote multiple articles about this very topic. It is a substantial conflict for a city official to dually vote on city actions, ordinances, and even lawsuits while also profiting from and authoring media coverage about these issues. The employment relationship between Tryon and Stray Moose Productions appears to directly conflict with 2.21.050(C1-2). Tryon’s employer benefits financially from increased viewership. Therefore, Tryon’s employment appears to directly obfuscate his objectivity, independence, and judgement. If Tryon’s articles, in which he openly identifies himself as a City Commissioner, are reviewed by his employer, it is entirely possible that a business (Stray Moose Productions) is crafting narratives about city issues, with a city commissioner as the attributed author. Tryon cannot simultaneously act independently and objectively while writing about city issues on a blog for which he works, and about issues on which he is voting. This very same issue also conflicts with 2.21.050(D) which expressly forbids private employment or service which may prejudice independent judgment in the exercise of official duties. Below are just four examples of Tryon writing seemingly in his official capacity as City Commissioner, on a blog which generates revenue, and appears to be owned by Tryon’s employer:
Issue 2: Conduct Unbefitting the Public Trust
The employment relationship between Tryon and Stray Moose Productions itself is concerning and worthy of investigation. However, even absent an employment relationship. Tryon’s conduct as a contributing author on E City Beat violates other ethical standards.
The most significant ethical violations exist when examining Tryon’s writing under the lens of 2.10.030 (B-D)
2.21.030 – Purpose and authority.
It is the purpose of this chapter to provide a method of assuring that standards of ethical conduct for officers and employees of the City of Great Falls shall be clear, consistent, uniform in their application, enforceable, and to provide those officers or employees with advice and information concerning possible conflicts of interest which might arise in the conduct of their public duties. Such ethical standards shall inspire and stimulate each officer and employee to: […]
- Affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain a constructive, creative and practical attitude toward urban affairs and a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant;
- Be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships so that each public servant may merit the respect and confidence of elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public; and
- Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people.
Examining first Tryon’s conduct in relation to 2.21.030(B) and 2.21.030(D), Tryon has made multiple public statements that do not indicate a “deep send of social responsibility as a trusted public servant.” One poignant example is the below article Tryon authored for E City Beat. After Neo Nazis littered a neighborhood with antisemitic and anti-trans flyers, Tryon erroneously accused the Great Falls Tribune as mischaracterizing this literature. As seen below, Tryon clearly identifies himself as a City Commissioner at the end of his article. Matters of public safety, including adherence to governmental laws regarding discrimination, are well within the purview of the city commission. It is a direct conflict for Tryon to address such matters on behalf of his employer, and even worse to abuse the public trust and openly disenfranchise members of the LGBTQ+ community who were deeply affected by this hate literature.
Tryon’s article can also be read here: https://ecitybeat.com/tribune-misreports-that-anti-trans-flyer-was-distributed-in-great-falls/. Tryon cannot “serve the best interest of all of the people” while writing articles that ignore transphobic rhetoric, or the targeting of LGBTQ+ community members by hate groups.
Even more concerning than Tryon’s more broad discriminatory statements is Tryon’s consistent targeting and harassment of local citizens that disagree with him. Tryon has continually and consistently used E City Beat to disparage and humiliate citizens that disagree with him. Many of these citizens have never run for public office, nor would they be considered a “public figure” by an interpretation of the definition.
Below are just two examples of Tryon naming public citizens in articles where he openly disparages them for disagreeing with him.
Tryon’s actions are a clear violation of 2.21.030(C) which requires Tryon to “Be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships so that each public servant may merit the respect and confidence of elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public.” Perhaps the most telling example of Tryon’s violating the public trust is Tryon’s E City Beat article in which he includes an email sent to him from a constituent. You can read the full article here: https://ecitybeat.com/ban-gas-stoves-in-great-falls/.
Tryon cannot reasonably maintain public trust when he is willing to share emails sent to him in his capacity as a City Commissioner for fodder on his blog. It is wholly unacceptable for Tryon to make community members who contact him in his official role the subject of public derision. Tryon clearly abuses his position when he not only degrades those who disagree with him, but also seeks to humiliate those who reach out to him in earnest. The below screenshots show Tryon’s article, in which he again clearly identifies himself as a City Commissioner.
Tryon’s authorship on E City Beat has significantly undermined the honor and integrity of the commission and has diminished the respect and confidence of the public in his ability to perform his duties. It is incumbent upon the City of Great Falls to uphold its code of ethics, including fully investigating the employment relationship between Tryon and Stray Moose Productions/E City Beat. Further, Tryon’s attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, the unhoused, and multiple private citizens should be considered grounds for his expulsion from the City Commission. Such conduct is not only unbefitting a public servant, but also in clear violation of the city’s Code of Ethics.