Politics

Weston County Commissioners Voted In Secret, Sent Illegal Group Texts, Court Petition Says

Current and former Weston County commissioners will be deposed in a lawsuit challenging the process they used to appoint a state lawmaker in 2021. They deny allegations they illegally conducted county business out of the public view via group text messages.

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Leo Wolfson

April 01, 20235 min read

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A new filing in a lawsuit contesting the 2021 appointment of a Weston County state lawmaker alleges commission members covertly texted each other about the appointment in a group text.

The group text was revealed in court documents that sitting commissioners had allegedly been communicating via text in the lead up to the November 2021 appointment of former state Rep. J.D. Williams to fill the District 2 seat in the state House of Representatives.

This type of communication is a violation of the Wyoming Open Meetings Law, which states any communication among a quorum of elected officials at one time constitutes a public meeting that requires public attendance and notice. 

The major contention over the vote to appoint Williams was the use of a secret ballot.

Williams was one of three candidates nominated by the Weston County Republican Party to replace former state Rep. Hans Hunt, who resigned.

How It Happened

At an October 2021 meeting, county commissioners from Weston, Niobrara and Goshen counties took a p private secret ballot vote for the replacement.

They announced Williams had won the vote, but provided no other information about which commissioners voted for which candidates. No further information was provided at the time, according to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the vote.

But during a Weston County Commission meeting Nov. 1, 2022, each commissioner stated who they voted for and why. At this meeting, the commissioners also said they did not intend to violate the Open Meetings Law, nor did they acknowledge that they did so or express any regret for voting by secret ballot.

Bruce Moats, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Cowboy State Daily on Friday the commissioners will be deposed sometime in the next few weeks.

He said this makes up a part of the discovery portion of the amended complaint, challenging the legality of the use of the secret ballot.

All of the current Weston County commissioners – Nathan Todd, Ed Wagoner and Don Taylor – will be deposed, as will former commissioners Marty Ertman and Tony Barton.

Moats is representing the News Letter Journal Newspaper, Weston County Republican Party Chairman Kari Drost, Patricia Bauman and Raymond Norris in the lawsuit against the commissioners.

The Texts

In September 2022, Taylor revealed to Drost the existence of the text messages, which he provided to the plaintiffs in January.

Taylor said the commissioners had regularly communicated this way, information that was not provided in an earlier request by the plaintiffs to inspect all documents related to the appointment process.

Jerimiah Rieman, executive director for the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, told the Newcastle Journal that he told the Weston County commissioners they are not allowed to communicate in this way.

It was within these texts that the commissioners allegedly scheduled and decided to do the secret ballot election. 

“A review of the texts show that the commissioners were conducting business via group messaging in violation of the Wyoming Public Meetings Act,” the amended petition reads. 

The commissioners were also allegedly discussing public business and voting on expenditures of public money in the texts. 

Commissioners Push Back

The defendants oppose the motion to include the texts in a new amended petition to the court, saying the messages aren’t relevant to the current five-member board, which has two new members since the 2022 election.

This argument was rejected by 6th Judicial District Judge Stuart Healy III on March 7, who ruled in favor of allowing the texts as part of the scope of evidence.

The defendants denied the board had used text messages to communicate, conduct public business or communicate as a quorum, or that the texts included discussion or consideration of any public business.

They also deny the texts included votes on expenditures of public money or that the group text constituted an unannounced meeting in violation of the Wyoming Open Meetings Law.

The defendants say they decided to use a secret ballot based on the Weston County Republican Party’s use of a secret ballot in deciding its three candidates for the appointment.=

New Members Provide Emails, Texts

County political parties, and county and state governments fall under a different set of laws when it comes to elections. 

Moats said the commissioners say they’ve suspended the practice of using texts. He also said the new members of the board have provided all of their emails and texts since joining at the start of this year.

“But who’s to say they won’t start up again?” Moats questioned.

Along with a decision in their favor, the plaintiffs are requesting Healy issue injunctive relief forbidding the commissioners from using secret ballots and communicating by group text message in the future, as well as any applicable civil penalties.

A 1 p.m. May 23 time has been set for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief on the case, where the evidence gathered from the texts and depositions will be presented.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter