Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Resignation of county officials stirs feelings at meeting

The Western News | March 31, 2023 7:00 AM

A proposed subdivision in the Yaak may have generated the most discussion at Wednesday’s Lincoln County Commissioners meeting, but the topic of the recent resignations of three county employees also generated comments.

Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson and both employees in the Elections Office, including Administrator Paula Buff and her assistant, Amanda Eckart, have resigned.

Buff announced her resignation in a letter to media outlets on Friday, March 24, while sharing a list of candidates for school board trustee candidates.

Benson delivered her resignation letter, dated March 27, to The Western News.

District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher, who represents the northern part of Lincoln County, said he learned of the resignations when schools which are holding board trustee elections in May, emailed him late Friday afternoon about what the county would do.

“We don’t have a plan yet for the elections, but we’ll figure something out,” Letcher said.

Corrina Brown, who has worked in the Clerk and Recorder’s Office under Benson, said she is now the interim Clerk and Recorder for the county. She took notes of the Wednesday meeting for the official record.

Benson was critical of the way the commissioners treated her and election staff, but some who attended Wednesday’s meeting applauded Letcher for his work in what they said was, “trying to maintain election integrity.”

“We need to hand count all ballots and all voters should register in person,” Evan Comella said. “And we need to stop using the ESS machines.”

Darrel “DC” Orr thanked Letcher for his efforts while issuing warnings to the commissioners.

“You (Letcher) always give moral and ethical reasons for your decisions,” Orr said. “But this town and county has suffered some high profile embarrassments and appointments to fill some of these positions will not restore trust and that is something you must do.”

Others living in the more remote areas of the county also wanted to see the return of local polling places. Some wanted to see the elimination of electronic voting machines and ballot counters with a return to paper ballots and hand counting.

“I believe in Election Day, not Election Week,” said Yaak resident Larry Miller. “Our election place was taken away from us and I’d like to have it back.”

Terry Holmes, a McCormick area resident, also wanted to see a polling place reopened there.

Many local polling places were closed in response to social distancing requirements following the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March 2022, Buff requested that the county commissioners approve consolidating seven polling locations into three main locations in Libby, Troy and Eureka.

At the time, Buff said it would improve security and logistics.

Commissioners Brent Teske, Jerry Bennett and Letcher unanimously approved the change.

Election integrity has been a hot topic since former Pres. Donald Trump frequently claimed the 2020 election was rigged and would be stolen from him. While Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, he still dominated the vote in Lincoln County and Montana. In Montana, he had a 16.4% margin of victory, and in Lincoln County the margin was 50%.

In her letter of resignation, Benson wrote that, “There is zero respect or even common courtesy from commissioners to county election employees or myself. My job has never been political, both on the Clerk and Recorder side and especially elections. Now, politics is being shoved down my throat and I refuse to comply with someone else’s world view.”

Benson also asserted that election staff were fearful of attending commissioner meetings.

“They can no longer do their jobs,” Benson wrote. “There is zero support from the commissioners. Both Paula Buff and Amanda Eckart are leaving their positions under severe duress and anxiety.”

The Election Administrator post has seen three people in it since 2020. After Leigh Riggleman resigned, Chris Nelson took over in August 2020 and left in November 2020, shortly after the election was over. Buff took over in January 2021.

Tensions were on the rise between Letcher, Benson and Buff over the last several months. Letcher accused Buff of falsifying election documents at a March 1 commissioners meeting.