Judge Will Choose From Rejected GOP Finalists To Fill Vacancy On Sheridan County Commission

A district court judge ruled Friday that she will only choose from the three rejected Sheridan County Republican nominees to fill a vacancy on the county commission.

Leo Wolfson

September 01, 20236 min read

Sheridan County Courthouse 9 1 23

Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Darci Phillips stressed in a Friday order that she’s trying to find a way to satisfy her obligation to fill a Sheridan County Commission vacancy. 

Phillips had the option of opening the candidate process back up and allow any registered Republican to apply for the seat, but instead opted to only choose between the three finalists nominated by the Sheridan County Republican Party. She’s making the decision because the three were all rejected by the sitting commissioners.

They are 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.

The appointment process became extremely heated Tuesday when the commissioners declined to accept any of the three nominees selected by the party to fill the fifth seat on the board, finding none adequately qualified for the job.

The commissioners believed by not making a decision that under state law, it would be up to the court.

“After giving due consideration to all the facts, the court finds it should give deference to the decision of the Sheridan County Republican Party Central Committee and the results of the most recent primary election,” Phillips said in her order.

‘Round One’ Win

In a Friday afternoon post on the Sheridan County GOP blog titled “Sanity Exists After All,” Chairman Bryan Miller lauded Phillips’ decision. Miller told Cowboy State Daily the ruling is a win for “round one” of the party’s fight, while hinting at possible future legal action.

“We appreciate judge Phillips’ deference to the electorate of the Republican Party,” Miller said. “We look forward to seeing how the process moves forward.”

Secretary of State Chuck Gray, who criticized the Sheridan County commissioners for not picking one of the three candidates, spoke favorably of Phillips’ decision in a Friday statement.

“It didn't take an attorney to figure out that the county commissioners failed to fulfill their statutory obligation,” he said. “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.

“The county commissioners cannot ignore the law in favor of personal political grievance against the county Republican Party.”

Phillips will interview the candidates in open court Sept. 13. She will select a new commissioner by Sept. 19.

All three ran for a seat on the commission in 2022 and lost, finishing fourth (Jennings), fifth (Arzy) and sixth (Helferich), respectively. 

The fact that none were elected in 2022 shows county residents don’t want them on the commission, Commission Chairman Christi Haswell told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday.

“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.”

Other Side

Gail Symons, a Republican precinct committeeperson in Sheridan County who is routinely at odds with party leadership, filed a petition on Wednesday requesting the court fill the vacant seat. Symons said she sees Phillips’ decision as her way to “intervene in all the drama.”

Symons said when people reached out to her asking if the party won, she responded, “‘no, the process won.’”

Symons pointed out that Phillips didn’t reject her petition and thus reasonably accepted the commissioners’ interpretation of the law. This move went against the requests of the party that Phillips throw out the petition and send the decision back to the commission.

Phillips noted that the law does not explain how a court should go about filling a vacancy, but that the law requires her to be apolitical.

Symons believes the commissioners are extremely well respected in her community and that the Sheridan GOP may have awoken “a sleeping tiger” of public resentment.

“I think there might be a subterranean schism happening in the county that is about to rise to the surface,” she said.

Not Over

Miller said the party is still considering its legal options for removing the four remaining commissioners from office for what he believes was an intentional failure to perform their lawful duties. He said many party members have requested they keep pursuing legal action even after Phillips rendered her decision.

“People are saying we should continue to push for this because of the attitude of the commissioners,” he said. “The attitude and arrogance of the commissioners is driving people to rise up.”

The party has retained Caleb Wilkins, a Cheyenne-based attorney who represented the Uinta County Republican Party in a lawsuit that county party eventually lost before the Wyoming Supreme Court this spring.

The appointment dispute is just one of a few points of contention the Sheridan GOP has with the county commissioners.

Also prevalent is a dispute between the county clerk and commissioners about who should do the county’s budget each year, along with the fate of more than $40 million in Sheridan Area Water Supply infrastructure. 

In a Thursday letter to the party advertising a “Patriot Chat” to discuss these issues, Miller accused the commissioners of “conspiracy, corruption and lawlessness.”

Symons disagreed and said if the commissioners really want to conspire, they would have selected the candidate who was least polished for the job.

“If the four county commissioners really wanted to engage in conspiracy or undermining the process and avoiding all the drama, they could have done so by selecting one of the candidates they believe would be the least electable or least likely to interfere with the business of the board,” she said.

If Holly Jennings isselected, there will be a member of the Jennings family in each level of Sheridan local government as her sister Kristen Jennings already sits on the City Council.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter