Weston County Agrees That Secret Ballots, Hidden Communications Illegal In Lawsuit Settlement

Weston County commissioners on Tuesday settled a lawsuit that sets a legal precedent clarifying that voting by secret ballot and conducting electronic communications to engage in public business in Wyoming is illegal, media attorney says.

Leo Wolfson

May 24, 20235 min read

Weston county shot

A settlement between the Weston County commissioners, Weston County Republican Party chairman and Newcastle Journal newspaper says the commissioners unintentionally broke the law in 2021 when they held a secret ballot election and communicated about it over text message beforehand.

“We got what we originally were going after,” Bruce Moats, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday morning. 

The plaintiffs wanted to prove that the commissioners violated the Wyoming Open Meeting Law by casting private votes and conducting public business over a group text.

The suit was filed over an allegation the commissioners communicated via text message in the lead up to their 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 be allowed and notice.  

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

Settlement Terms 

In the settlement announced Tuesday, the commissioners admit to violating the Open Meetings Act by using a secret ballot and group chats to conduct public business. Both parties also agree the commissioners did so unintentionally.

The commissioners also committed to not voting by secret ballot or conducting public business by electronic communications in the future. 

The settlement was arranged on the first day of the trial before 6th Judicial District Court Judge Stuart Healy III. Moats said Healy will approve the settlement, thus making it a court order, permanently holding the commissioners to the commitment to not engage these practices in the future.

Moats said that legal commitment has been difficult to get in similar Wyoming cases. 

He said both parties took an active interest in coming to the settlement agreement. Johnson County Prosecuting Attorney Tucker Ruby, representing the commission, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

But former Weston County Commissioner Marty Ertman told Cowboy State Daily that she would have welcomed seeing the case go to a public trial. She was on the commission at the time.

“I would’ve loved to have gone to court,” she said.  

But like the entire lawsuit, she said that would have unfortunately been at the taxpayer’s expense. 

Moats said conversations about coming to a settlement had been in the works for a number of months. 

“It’s something I’ve been trying to get through,” he said. “It should’ve been done earlier.” 

Proving the commissioners intentionally violated the Open Meetings Law, Moats said, would have been a very high standard that would be difficult to prove and likely wouldn’t have received support from Healy. 

What Happened 

At an October 2021 meeting, county commissioners from Weston, Niobrara and Goshen counties took a secret ballot vote to replace former state Rep. Hans Hunt, who stepped down from his position. 

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.

Ertman told Cowboy State Daily there were two attorneys present who discussed the voting with the commission and approved of the way it was done.

In September 2022, Weston County Commissioner Don Taylor provided new evidence showing the commissioners scheduled the election by text, a communication method they regularly used for discussing public business. The defendants opposed the texts being submitted as official evidence. 

Current and former Weston County commissioners were deposed for the case in April. 

Moats believes there was some contention about commissioners voting for a non-Weston County candidate that led to the lawsuit. 

“That’s the rankle,” he said. 

During a Weston County Commission meeting in November 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. However,  they did not acknowledge that they did so or express any regret for voting by secret ballot.  

The acknowledgment that the law was broken is the key piece of information that changed in the settlement. 

“They originally opposed that,” Moats said. 


Moats considers the settlement a win for government transparency in Wyoming in that it sets a legal precedent for public officials using secret ballots and electronic communications to conduct public business. 

“If someone had asked me before if secret ballots are legal, I would’ve said, ‘No, but I don’t have a court case in Wyoming to cite,’” he said. “Now I can say there is a court case in Wyoming.” 

Moats said there have been a few instances of this occurring in the past, such as an incident involving the Carbon County School District No. 2 Board of Trustees using secret ballots, and then Gillette City Councilman and now Mayor Shay Lundvall’s creation of two group texts in 2022 to discuss council business. 

He said using group texts and other electronic means to determine scheduling and other topics is likely acceptable but anything beyond those discussions turns the communications into a meeting. 

Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter