When the decision was announced Tuesday, the room erupted with expressions of outrage.
That was the moment the Sheridan County commissioners declined to accept any of the three nominees selected by their county’s Republican party to fill a vacant seat on the five-member board, finding none adequately qualified for the job.
“We take this elected position very seriously,” Commissioner Chairwoman Christi Haswell told those attending the meeting before being interrupted by jeers. “While we appreciate everyone’s courage to throw their name in the hat, it does not automatically mean they are qualified.”
The three finalists selected for the vacancy were Mike Arzy, Bryan Helferich and Holly Jennings. Jennings is the daughter of state Rep. Mark Jennings, who’s also a member of the socially conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
In an email to the Sheridan County GOP on Wednesday, Sheridan County Republican Party Chairman Bryan Miller described the county board as “rogue commissioners” who are thumbing “their noses (at) thousands of citizens” of Sheridan County. The actual vote to select the nominees was made by fewer than 100 people while about 46% of registered Republicans voted for party precinct positions in the 2022 elections.
All three nominees ran for county commissioner in 2022 and lost, finishing fourth (Jennings), fifth (Arzy) and sixth (Helferich), respectively.
A total of 823 votes separated Jennings and Commissioner Allen Thompson, the third-place vote getter. It was Thompson’s seat that’s vacant after he resigned in late July.
That the 2022 election showed the nominees didn’t have enough support from county voters was a factor in not choosing any of them, Haswell said.
“These candidates were not supported by Sheridan County voters,” Haswell said. “We would not be doing our job if we selected one of these three that were not supported by the county.”
Catcalls and other less-than-polite criticism rained down from the audience as the Haswell adjourned the meeting, including some calling for her arrest. The city’s chief of police and county sheriff were there to ensure the commissioners could safely leave the meeting.
As head of the Sheridan County GOP, Miller wrote about the situation on the party’s blog Tuesday after the meeting.
“Today our board of county commissioners failed us. They failed to abide by the process set forth in our state law,” he said.
A cartoon referencing tarring and feathering also was posted on the Sheridan County GOP Facebook page Tuesday, advertising a “Patriot Chat” on Thursday to discuss “the recent dereliction of duty by the Sheridan County Commissioners.”
Haswell declined to comment about the cartoon when asked by Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday.
The appointment issue had already gained the attention of Secretary of State Chuck Gray, who sent a letter to the county commission, attorney and clerk on Monday saying he interprets the law as requiring the commissioners to accept one of the three local party nominees.
Gray concluded his letter with, “although I am not your attorney, I advise you to follow the process outlined in Wyoming statute.”
In response to his letter, Gray told Cowboy State Daily he received “an angry, inappropriate response with inaccurate assertions from the county attorney that failed to address any of the widespread concerns” he had with their approach to the vacancy process.
“I remain troubled that developing a pattern of ignoring statutes and replacing the vacancy process mandated by statute with allowing an unelected judge to fill the vacancy undermines Wyoming law and accountability to the people of Wyoming," Gray said of the commissioners’ decision.
How It Went
Earlier this month, the Sheridan County Republican Party selected the three finalists for the county commission to choose from, which is the standard procedure for filling county commission vacancies in Wyoming.
The meeting started with each of the three candidates being asked a selection of the same questions.
When asked whether they would take a stance on social issues, all three affirmed they would. When Helferich was asked if he knew what the commissioners do on a day-to-day basis, he responded that he was hoping “you could tell me.”
Haswell said she found it disappointing that three candidates who lost the 2022 election were the same nominees brought to the board.
“The central Republican committee was asking their members to vote for these folks because they already threw their hat in the ring,” she said. “That doesn’t automatically make you the best candidate. The voters decided it was not best to select these candidates.”
Miller disagrees and said their performance in the 2022 election is irrelevant to the appointment process.
“The contention that the nominees were not elected by the Sheridan County voters is specious and moot, since the appointment process is designed to fill vacancies created when one of those elected members departs before their term expires,” he wrote in his blog. “It is not the same process as a general election, nor is it intended to be.”
Although the three nominees technically qualified to be presented, Haswell expressed doubts about their community involvement and ability to participate as part of the commission in a positive manner.
The board convened a short executive session before returning back to the public.
A motion was made to appoint each of the three candidates to the position of county commissioner. Each motion failed to receive a second, and thus was not eligible for a vote.
Miller believes the commissioners failed to perform their duties of office and may be eligible for a misdemeanor charge and removal from office in a court of law or by the governor. After the meeting, Miller told people that the party will be filing a request to have the commissioners removed.
Haswell believes the threat of legal filings is an effort of the party to influence the appointment process.
What The Law Says
She also believes the law gives commissioners the right to reject nominees.
“We didn’t do anything illegal,” Haswell said. “We didn’t hear any advice to do any other thing from people who are attorneys.
Wyoming Statute 18-3-524 outlines the process for how political vacancies are filled in Wyoming.
Within 20 days of receiving notice of a vacancy, the chairman of the county central committee belonging to the party previously represented in the vacant seat shall call a meeting of the committee. At the meeting, the committee shall select three people qualified to fill the vacancy.
Next, the law states that the county 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.”
Miller said in his blog post that the statutory requirements for filling a vacancy were unfulfilled. Gray said in his letter that the use of the word “shall” is critical as it indicates the commissioners’ obligation to pick a name from the list of nominees is “mandatory, not discretionary.”
“Any other interpretation of the statute would be to write an entirely different law contrary to what the Legislature prescribed,” he said.
The law goes on to state that if the commissioners fail to fill a vacancy within 20 days, any qualified elector of the county may file a petition with the clerk of the district court of the county in which the vacancy occurred and request a judge to fill the vacancy.
Haswell said the board conferred with both the county attorney and deputy county attorney about the issue and feel confident the law is on their side. They have yet to receive any legal opinion from someone representing the Sheridan County Republican Party.
What Happens Next?
It will be up to the judge who the petition is filed with to decide how exactly to conduct the process to select an appointment.
Miller said he hopes the judge immediately decides the petition is “non-justiciable” and refers the decision back to the county commissioners, “and enjoin the board from considering any other business until it has selected from one of the three candidates.”
A nearly identical situation happened in Campbell County in 2018.
As reported by the Gillette News Record at the time, several residents complained publicly about the Campbell County GOP’s process to select its nominees, which included now-State Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette. Some accused the far-right segment of the party of manipulating the selection of the three finalists and ignoring more qualified candidates.
The Campbell County commissioners were unable to come to a majority consensus about which candidate to put on the board, so they turned to a district court judge to help make a decision.
The district court judge opened a new application period and received 13 applications, from which he selected current Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.