Although the Sheridan County Republican Party ended up getting its top pick to fill a vacant seat on the county commission in September 2023, the local party is still fuming over what it believes sas a rigged appointment process.
The county party filed a lawsuit last week against four of the five Sheridan County commissioners for the way they handled the vacancy appointment process, calling for their removal and accusing them of deliberately not upholding their statutory duties. They also say personal biases against some in the local party influenced the commissioners, and included excerpts of text messages to back up the claim.
When it came time to select from one of three finalists presented by the local Republican Party, the commissioners voted to not select any of them and handed the decision off to a local judge.
In a statement posted to the Sheridan County GOP blog Wednesday morning, the party says it filed its lawsuit to hold the commissioners accountable.
“We have a disagreement with the county commission regarding their duties under Wyoming statute,” the statement reads. “Our hope is that this complaint helps to clarify the proper roles of the county commission and the judiciary with regard to filling vacancies on the county commission.”
Representing the party is Cheyenne attorney Caleb Wilkins. Wilkins represented the Uinta County Republican Party in a case that he eventually lost before the Wyoming Supreme Court last spring.
State law provides for the removal of county commissioners who fail to perform their duties or knowingly commit acts that violate their oaths.
The party claims members of the Sheridan County Commission “sought to undermine the democratic selection process choosing to blatantly disregard their statutory duty in an attempt to handpick the next member of the board,” the lawsuit says.
Sheridan County Attorney Dianna Bennett declined to comment on the filing. County Commission Chairperson Christi Haswell, who like the other three comissioners is named individually as a defendant, said the board is not commenting on the lawsuit at this time.
The appointment process became extremely heated last August when the commissioners declined to accept any of the three nominees selected by the Sheridan County Republican Party to fill a fifth seat that had become vacant on the board, finding that none of the three qualified for the job.
The three candidates were the top runners-up from the 2022 commission election.
A judge ended up selecting Sheridan resident Holly Jennings, who is the only current commissioner not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
A total of 823 votes separated Jennings and Commissioner Allen Thompson, the third-place vote getter, in the 2022 election. It was Thompson’s seat that was vacant after he resigned in late July.
The results of the 2022 election were cited in not selecting any of the nominees because it showed they didn’t have enough support from county voters, Haswell told Cowboy State Daily in August 2023.
“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.”
Although the three nominees technically qualified for the job, Haswell also expressed doubts about their community involvement and ability to participate as part of the commission in a positive manner.
What Does The Lawsuit Say?
Under Wyoming law, within 20 days of receiving notice of a vacancy, the chairman of a county central committee belonging to the party previously represented in the vacant seat shall call a meeting and 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.”
The plaintiffs argue that the commissioners ignored their statutory requirements by not selecting a replacement commissioner.
But the law also lays out a roadmap for scenarios where commissioners fail to fill a vacancy within 20 days, which is what played out in Sheridan. In this scenario, any qualified elector of the county may file a petition with the clerk of the district court and request a judge fill the vacancy.
The local party argues in its lawsuit that it has evidence proving not selecting one of the party’s nominees was premeditated by the commissioners. It also accuses the commissioners of having an executive session under false pretenses.
Comments Show Guilt?
A public records request of commissioner’ phone texts show certain members criticizing the Sheridan GOP and the appointment process.
In one conversation between Commissioner Nick Siddle and Sheridan City Council member Terry Weitzel last June when they learned Thompson was going to resign, Siddle indicated he wouldn’t like anyone the local party could put forward and made a disparaging remark about two people who ended up being nominated by the party.
“WTF! Allen Thompson is resigning? That screws up I (sic) of things,” Weitzel texted to Siddle.
Siddle responded: “Sure does. Gonna be a CF who the Republican Party gives us.”
“F***ed up,” Weitzel texts, later in the exchange adding, “You’ll have fun having Roger Miller or Holly Jennings on the BOCC.”
“Or Arzy or Helferich,” Siddle responds.
The text conversation demonstrates “an early bias and hostility toward the Party and its prospective nominees related to the vacancy,” the lawsuit says.
The party accused the commissioners of laying the groundwork for their “plan” of not selecting anyone by mentioning during their June 19 meeting that a tie vote from the board would result in a court picking the replacement candidate. The Sheridan GOP also said the commissioners made a number of public comments after this meeting leading the public to believe it would not select a candidate.
This led Secretary of State Chuck Gray sending the commissioners a letter the day prior to selection day telling them he interprets the law as saying they must select a candidate.
Bennett responded to this letter, saying she informed the board of its legal duties for filling the board seat.
Gray described this response to Cowboy State Daily at the time as angry and inappropriate with “inaccurate assertions” made by Bennett “that failed to address any of the widespread concerns” Gray had with their approach to the vacancy process.
About three weeks earlier, Sheridan County Deputy Attorney Clint Beaver had emailed Haswell, explaining the board had flexibility in how it handled the vote for the vacancy, according to the court filing.
Do Nothing Approach
The commissioners decided that by not making a decision, under state law, it would be up to a court to decide who would fill that seat. The lawsuit lists several conversations to support this assertion.
In one text, Haswell expressed frustration that the party had already voted to file a lawsuit in the event the board didn’t select a replacement candidate. According to the Sheridan County GOP blog, the commitment to file a lawsuit was reiterated at a Nov. 1, 2023, central committee meeting.
Haswell also said the party set a deadline for people to apply for the vacancy before the commissioners even sent official notice to the party about it.
On the day of the selection, Sheridan County Republican Party precinct committee member Gail Symons sent Haswell a text giving her legal interpretation of the situation. Symons also told Haswell that she would file the petition to have a judge make a decision on the matter. Haswell thanked her.
The party accuses the commissioners of not entering into executive session on the day of the appointment vote to consider picking a candidate, but rather to “formulate a plan by which to disregard their statutory duty to appoint one of the nominees.”
It comes to this conclusion based on various conversations included in the court filing that the commissioners had with members of the public discussing problems with the candidates and the possibility of not voting for any of them.
In a radio interview two days after the judge chose Jennings, Commissioner Tom Ringley said he made his decision based on constituent feedback and his personal conscience.
After the vote was made, Haswell sent a text to another person saying the board “had no choice” but to take the action it did.
The day after Symons’ petition was filed, two more candidates applied with the court to be considered for the vacancy.
On Sept. 1, Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Darci Phillips issued a court order that she would only select from the three candidates provided by the Sheridan GOP. She also indicated in her original order that the commissioners acted legally and accepted the nomination process in her court.
Later that month, Phillips selected Jennings.
The Sheridan County Republican Party’s lawsuit also has been assigned to Phillips, with a 9 a.m. Feb. 13 bench trial scheduled.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.