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Campaign complaint filed against Missoula school board candidate Gehl

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Gehl Door Hanger.jpg

Missoula County Public Schools District C candidate Michael Gehl distributed nearly 500 door hangers that were in violation of Montana campaign finance attribution law. The door hangers also used partisan imagery for a nonpartisan election. 

Missoula County Public Schools District C candidate Michael Gehl has resolved a complaint filed with Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices for failing to include full attribution on campaign materials.

Initially, the report was filed regarding campaign door-hangers that did not include the full “paid for by” attribution message as required by Montana State Law. The COPP’s review additionally determined that Gehl lacked proper attribution on yard signs and his website, according to the complaint document Gehl shared with the Missoulian.

Nearly 500 door-hangers that lacked proper attribution of Gehl's campaign address were placed during the week of April 11, according to the complaint. About 50 yard signs were also distributed without attribution. 

Gehl’s opponent, Rob Woelich, filed the complaint with the COPP on April 14. Gehl was able to remedy the materials within two business days. As a result he was “relieved of a campaign practice violation,” according to the COPP.

“Candidate Gehl took responsibility for the deficiencies and initiated attribution remedies as requested,” the COPP review stated. Gehl considered the error “an oversight,” according to the document.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan said attribution is among the most common issues his office handles. 

Additionally, the 500 door-hangers distributed by Gehl included a symbol of a red-and-blue elephant, commonly used by Republican candidates, in the nonpartisan school board race.

“In regard to the use of the party name, any such allegation would not be addressed as it is outside the scope of jurisdiction of our office,” Mangan wrote in an email.

According to Montana law, candidates nominated by a political party “have the sole and exclusive right to the use of the party name.” Nonpartisan candidates cannot use any word or name of a party that implies that they are affiliated with the group.

Gehl was not given permission by the Missoula County Republicans to use imagery related to the party, according to Vondene Kopetski, chair for the Missoula County Republicans. However, she did not take issue with his use of the imagery and noted that the party can endorse candidates in nonpartisan races.

Kopetski characterized Gehl’s use of partisan imagery in his campaign door-hangers as an oversight by a first-time candidate, she said.

Gehl declined to comment on the use of the GOP image.

“(These codes are) there for a reason, which is that these races are not supposed to be about the R or the D after your name,” said Lee Banville, a political analyst and journalism professor at the University of Montana. “They’re supposed to be about, ‘can you do the job.’ And we’ve seen an increasingly aggressive attempt to politicize what were built to be nonpolitical jobs.

“I think what’s worrisome is it injects politics into a place where the people who put this system together said politics should not be,” Banville continued.

Banville speculated that Gehl’s use of the partisan imagery was for electoral benefit, which he said “is at best worrisome and at worst is like turning another part of what should be local government into a us-versus-them, Democrats-versus-Republicans kind of fight.”

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