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Voters keep Williams on as Libby mayor

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | November 5, 2021 7:00 AM

Libby residents turned out in droves for this year’s municipal election, sending one newcomer to city council despite generally favoring incumbents.

Sitting Mayor Peggy Williams defeated rival City Councilor Hugh Taylor by 46 votes, according to the county’s preliminary tally on Nov.

  1. Gary Beach and Kristin Smith retained their seats on city council and were joined by neophyte Melissa Berke.

Williams received 345 votes to Taylor’s 299.

Despite suspending his campaign prior to the election, resident Kenny Rayome Jr. earned 51 votes.

Rayome announced in October that he was bowing out of the race, pointing to his position as the city’s water plant operator as a conflict of interest. While Rayome publicized his decision, it was too late for him to remove his name from ballots. He asked voters not to cast ballots in his favor. but still receive more votes than the margin separating Williams and Taylor.

Following the election, Taylor said he would have liked to think Rayome’s supporters could have made a difference in the race. But he said no one could tell how these residents would have voted under different circumstances.

“Those 51 could have voted for Peggy,” he said.

As of the day after the election, Taylor said he had not seen numbers on Libby’s voter turnout. If figures were low, he suspected that having more residents cast ballots might have changed the course of the election.

Compared to most municipal elections, Paula Buff, county election administrator, said Libby saw significantly more voters turn out this year. Election officials generally see between 26 and 32 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. This year, 61.65 percent of eligible Libby voters filled out absentee ballots. Buff said Libby’s turnout numbers were bound to increase when election officials factored in poll votes.

While Taylor may have lost the mayoral race, he will retain his seat on Libby City Council. He cited the city’s legal negotiations with International Paper over the municipality’s polluted groundwater as a continuing focus for Libby.

Williams was not immediately available for comment on Nov. 3.

In the council race, Beach earned 449 votes.

Berke and Smith followed with 373 and 352 votes, respectively. City councilors Zach McNew and Rob Dufficy were neck-and-neck with 230 and 228 votes. Challenger Darrel “DC” Orr, a former city councilor, secured 176 votes.

The day after the election, Beach said he was surprised by the margin of his win and thanked voters for returning him to city council. While other candidates might have relied more heavily on posting signs around town, Beach said he campaigned quietly by holding one-on-one calls with residents.

In his upcoming term, Beach hoped to continue tackling important projects for the city without burdening taxpayers. “The big thing is staying fiscally responsible and moving forward with good projects without increasing rates,” he

said. Beach pointed to a recent water main project, which the city funded using grant dollars, as the kind of project he would support in the years to come.

As a newcomer to city council, Berke said she would have to get caught up on the pressing issues facing the municipality.

Once she assumes her seat, Berke said she would work to increase public involvement in meetings. She noted the council has had trouble engaging with residents via video conferencing software. The municipality often faces technological trouble with its microphones. Some members of the public are unaware of the council’s meeting schedule, she said. While Berke was unsure of how to fix all the engagement issues as of Nov. 3, she said she thought live-streaming meetings via social media could help. Smith was not immediately available for comment on Nov. 3.

While most Libby voters used absentee ballots to cast their votes, some visited the polls at the county’s new election center on Nov.

  1. Stephanie Dill said she appreciated the slate of candidates who had appeared on this year’s ballot.

“It’s nice to see much interest in the local stuff,” she said.

The decision on whether or not to hold a poll election this year proved to be a point of contention among city officials and voters.

After debate, councilors ultimately stuck with a poll election, making Libby the only municipality in Lincoln County to go without a mail-in election this year. For Dill, the style of election didn’t make much of a difference.

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” she said. “A mail-in election would have been nice because I almost forgot [to go to the polls].” Mariah Larsh, however, felt a poll election was more secure than an all mail election.

“I don’t trust the mail-in ballots. I don’t think that could be quite safe. I think there is a lot more risk with that. It’s a lot easier to tamper with something like that,” she said.

Despite efforts to cast doubt on the validity of mail-in ballots, organizers have failed to uncover any hard evidence of election fraud in U.S. elections.

Residents who visit polls said they would like to see the mayor and new council tackle initiatives that could help retain legacy organizations and attract new business. Kathy Powers wanted to see a sort of community center, which could replace the defunct Asa Wood Elementary School.

Earlier this year, administrators with Libby Public Schools signed an agreement to sell the building, which acts as a center for local organizations including the Libby Pantry, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts.

“I totally get the finances, I understand all the reasons why, but it is still tragic,” she said. “So many different groups were using that and now its tough to find another place.”

Larsh said she wanted to see more jobs come to the city. “Our little town is kind of dying because a lot of people don’t want to allow anything new in,” she said. “They want to keep the 1950s vibe that we have, which is great. But we can’t keep it so much that our little town dies.”