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A Sheridan County judge will choose who fills a vacancy on the county commission

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Sheridan County

A Sheridan County judge will choose who fills a vacancy on the Sheridan County Commission after the remaining four commissioners rejected the three candidates put forth by the Sheridan County Republican Party late last month. The vacancy came about after the resignation of Allen Thompson, who left to take over as executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police (WASCOP) in late July. The decision not to fill the vacancy drew jeers and even threats of arrest at a commission meeting from some county residents and Sheridan police and sheriff’s department made sure that the commissioners could exit safely. The decision also drew the ire of Secretary of State Chuck Gray and the county’s GOP.

“It was so premeditated,” said Nick Psaki, chair of the Sheridan County Republican Communications Committee, “that the the procedure that the Board of County Commissioners intended to use reached the Office of the Secretary of State who that arrived the day prior to the board's meeting, telling them his understanding is this is what the statute says, this is what should be expected of them. They should make a choice from the three names that were put forward. And they didn't. They decided to try and use their lack of decision or failure to make a decision and perform their statutory sworn duty and kick it to a judge.”

In the meeting, county commission chair Christi Haswell said that while all three candidates may have technically met the requirements to be a commissioner, there were questions about if they would represent the governing body well and would be up to the job.

“My closing statement was that the central [committee] had put forth these three names and had thought that they were the best names to put forward or the most deserving because they had run in the previous election,” Haswell said. “And my comment was that that doesn't automatically make you qualified. It's a low bar in statute for what is qualified [to be] a commissioner…we have to consider both the statute, but then also the skills, ability and knowledge for the position. And we just didn't feel like we were given the best candidates to fill this over a year [long] position before the next election.”

The three candidates the county GOP put forth were Holly Jennings, Mike Arzy, and Bryan Helferich. All three were candidates for the commission in 2022 and placed fourth, fifth, and sixth in the vote tally, respectively. Nine people initially responded to be considered for the position. Each was interviewed and the top three candidates moved forward. According to state statute, candidates for county commissions are required to reside in the county they're running in by the time their term begins if elected and remain a resident of the county throughout their term, though they may reside outside that county during their candidacy. They must also be 18 or older. It’s also implied that they must also be able to carry out the functions as a commissioner if elected, according to Jerimiah Reman of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

“We have to think about the services that we provide in terms of budgeting, road and bridge, emergency preparedness, planning and zoning. So, do they have some background or experience with that? Can they coordinate public and transparent meetings? Can they advocate county needs statewide? Have they been engaged and involved in the community? Do they have volunteer experience,” Haswell said. “[We’re] really looking at, how have they given back? Have they cared about making Sheridan County a better place? And we felt like Central Committee probably got some candidates that checked those boxes, but unfortunately, we didn't get those names.”

In Wyoming statute concerning how to fill political vacancies in the state, the chair of the county party’s central committee is responsible to call a meeting of the committee. The committee then selects three people to fill the vacancy. The statute reads that commissioners “shall fill the vacancy within 20 days after receiving the list from the county central committee by appointing one of the persons whose names are submitted by the county central committee.”

“What we're doing is we're allowing the process to complete this first set of the process to complete,” said Bryan Miller, chair of the Sheridan County Republican Party. “We did a series votes or rounds of votes…and the top three vote getters are the nominees that we put forward.”

Haswell said she found it disappointing that the three names that were submitted for the commission’s consideration were those that received some of the least amount of votes in the 2022 election. She added that this factored into their decision-making, saying they didn’t have enough support from county voters to be included on the commission. Secretary of State Chuck Gray also expressed concern over the commission’s decision and urged them to select one of the names put forth. He added to them that the statute includes the word “shall,” indicating an obligation of the commission to fill the vacancy.

"It didn't take an attorney to figure out that the county commissioners failed to fulfill their statutory obligation. I'm glad this has been resolved as it should have been, and that the process of selecting from the three nominees will go forward at the judge's insistence,” Gray said in a statement emailed to Wyoming Public Media. “The county commissioners cannot ignore the law in favor of personal political grievance against the county Republican Party."

Miller was highly critical of the commission’s decision and threatened a motion to have the four remaining commissioners removed, claiming they were derelict in doing their jobs and failed county voters. This included blog posts and a cartoon of a person being tarred and feathered with a blog post critical of the commission’s decision. Haswell found the county party’s response unfortunate.

“I think Sheridan County is better than that. I think we should be able to have better discussions as a community,” she said.

Miller added that commissioners may be guilty of a misdemeanor and removed from office either by a court or by the governor, though they’ve allowed the process to play out. But Haswell said she believes the law is on their side and that the legal threats are an effort on behalf of the county party to influence the appointment process for ideological reasons.

“We are not setting precedents in this situation,” Haswell said. “I know central committee feels differently about it, but no, we are absolutely within our legal rights to make that decision.”

Miller disagreed and said they followed the letter of the law in selecting appropriate candidates to fill the vacancy.

“We're following state statutes, same statute that's been followed every time that we replaced a state representative or state senator,” he said. “The sheriff actually. the gentleman who's leaving [Allen Thompson], he was appointed as the sheriff years ago through the same process. And this is the first time that they've decided [the commission] that they were going to go off reservation.”

Miller also took issue with the three names they forwarded not having adequate support from county voters.

“We as an executive committee did not choose three nominees, the precinct committee members of the Republican Party of this county who represent 27,000 voters [did]. That’s exactly what you do in a representative republic,” he said. They voted for their precincts and chose three people who were qualified by statute and forwarded to the Board of County Commissioners for selection.”

Haswell said that the responsibilities of a county commissioner are varied and shouldn’t become involved in the political fray in serving county residents.

“We feel strongly that this isn't and it shouldn't be a political position. We're providing services to the community. There shouldn't be anything political about roads and bridges, about emergency preparedness,” she said. “One of the candidates, when asked what do commissioners do, said, ‘I was hoping you were going to tell me that.’ I think he was being tongue in cheek, but I mean, that shouldn't be an answer we're getting from a candidate that wants to be a county commissioner.”

Despite the criticism that has been levied at the commission, Haswell indicated that she believed the correct decision was made.

“I wouldn't have done things differently. We felt like we were doing what the voters of Sheridan County wanted us to do,” she said.

Judge Darci Phillips will interview the three candidates on Sept. 13 and make a selection by Sept. 19.

Updated: September 12, 2023 at 5:54 PM MDT
This story has been updated to include a letter and statement from Secretary of State Chuck Gray.
Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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