Despite an outcry from local Democrats, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to remove election duties from the elected clerk and recorder position and create – at least temporarily – an appointed elections administrator instead.
“You’re creating a position that is insulated from the voters of Missoula County,” said Tyler Gernant, one of several Democrats to speak out against the proposal.
At the meeting, opponents pitched other possible models, but commissioners approved a resolution to appoint a full-time elections administrator for a term of three years. The commissioners, all Democrats, said they planned to closely monitor the change and decide toward the end of the term whether to continue the appointed position or return duties to the elected clerk and recorder – or another official.
“We’re not changing what we’re doing with elections. We’re preserving elections,” said commission chairwoman Jean Curtiss.
Commissioners noted the recommendation to create an appointed administrator accountable to the board came from a trusted county official, Vickie Zeier. Zeier, the county’s new chief administrative officer, was the elected clerk and recorder and treasurer in Missoula County the past 21 years.
“I think it’s a little curious that Vickie justifiably has earned kudos around the state of Montana for her work, but we’re apparently not willing to accept her recommendation for how best to succeed her,” said Commissioner Bill Carey.
In support of the resolution, Carey said he believes it is wise to give the appointment a try, and if it doesn’t work, commissioners can make adjustments. He said he wants to take partisanship out of the job, and the county has a duty to improve the public administration of elections.
“This goes to the heart of our democracy in a very real way,” Carey said.
Commissioner Michele Landquist, who lost her re-election bid in June’s Democratic primary, said she would have abstained if her name was going to be on the ballot in November. However, she said she too supports the idea, and she disagreed with the “if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it” argument some opponents made.
“That’s just it. We don’t want it broke,” Landquist said.
She also said the time is ripe to move forward on such an idea because Zeier still works for Missoula County, and she could ensure the change “happens just right.”
“Not one person has disputed the fact that she has made us one of the best,” Landquist said.
Only a couple of members of the public spoke in favor of the resolution. Lauren Meyer, a Republican, noted appointed positions are becoming more prevalent across the country, and the changes lead to a more professional position.
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“It’s a trend that’s increasing, including in such Republican strongholds as Seattle,” said Meyer, tongue in cheek. “Oh, wait, that’s a Democratic stronghold.”
Some members of the public brought several other ideas forward, but none of them gained traction with commissioners.
State Rep. Bryce Bennett suggested the county have an elected administrator who is nonpartisan, and he requested the commissioners help him advance a bill in the Montana Legislature to make such a position possible. He said he fears the move to an appointment could lead to voter suppression in the future.
“I have a lot of faith in the people who are here right now, but I don’t know anything about what the future holds, and we won’t always have the people here that we trust,” Bennett said.
Pam Walzer suggested the commissioners create an administrator who would report to the elected clerk and recorder instead of to the commissioners. That way, she said, voters could still hold a county official responsible for elections, albeit indirectly.
She and Cynthia Wolken both said they feared an appointed official – shielded from direct pressure from voters – would pit voter access against budgetary concerns. Wolken also said commissioners have good intentions, but the decision could compromise qualities imperative to the job.
“I think transparency and accountability will decrease regardless once these duties move to a bureaucrat,” Wolken said.
Chairwoman Curtiss, though, refuted the idea that appointed county officials hold less sway in budget discussions. Currently, she said, the county’s public works, planning and information systems department heads all are appointed, and they’re not getting shorted in budget requests.
“We don’t somehow say elected people get to have more money,” Curtiss said.
Regardless of their rationale and intentions, Mary Gray warned commissioners their stance would be reversed in the future and the public would have a poor perception of the decision: “You will be seen as disenfranchising people.”
The idea of disenfranchised voters made Zeier emotional, and at the end of the meeting, she pledged that as long as she has anything to do with elections, no one’s right to vote will be taken away.
“It’s just something that’s really important to me. I’m sorry. It just really does mean a lot to me,” Zeier said.
Commissioners will discuss next week a timeline for appointing an elections administrator.