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Cascade County selects former Realtor CEO as new elections administrator

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Cascade County selects former Realtor CEO as new elections administrator

Feb 15, 2024 | 7:36 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Cascade County selects former Realtor CEO as new elections administrator
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Sign for the Cascade County Election Office photographed on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to select former CEO of the Great Falls Association of Realtors Terry Thompson to take over as elections administrator after removing the job from Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant in December.

Thompson has no experience running elections, but scored the highest among the four candidates for the job, which included former Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore. Merchant unseated Moore in November 2022.

At the commissioner’s meeting, a handful of commenters commended the commission for the decision, while one wished they would have prioritized elections experience more into their choice.

Commissioners made the controversial 2-1 decision late last year to remove election duties from Merchant after a year of election mishaps and at least one active lawsuit for her handling of two May elections. The commission later voted to select a Merchant staffer to serve as interim administrator.

Thursday, however, commissioners, said Thompson would be able to get trained quickly to be able to perform the job.

“I look to candidates (for) mostly the management, the organization, the ability to work with people,” said Commissioner Rae Grulkowski. “Put them in a factory that packages oranges or builds electronics – they don’t need to know the nature of the business, but they have to have the skills to get that business operational.”

The county is looking down the barrel of a federal election year with a U.S. Senate race in Montana that could determine the party majority. Incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen Jon Tester is running against National Republican Senatorial Committee-endorsed businessman Tim Sheehy.

Thompson said in her interview with commissioners last week as a leader she felt motivated to help solve the problems in the elections office.

“I clearly see that the community is divided. And it’s divided on party lines,” she said. “I think I have an opportunity to take a negative and make it a positive in this situation.”

Thompson was one of four candidates who sought to replace Merchant as administrator. Others were Moore; Lynn DeRoche, who served as a court appointed election monitor for a levy election last year and worked alongside Moore for 16 years; and Nancy Donovan, who has been active in election denial circles along with Merchant and Grulkowski.

In her interview, Thompson emphasized her involvement in the community through the Realtors Association as the government affairs director and her elections experience as helping endorse candidates that aligned with property owners. She also served on neighborhood council and ran for city commission in 2019.

Thompson said in an emailed response to questions from the Daily Montanan on Thursday she appreciates the confidence the commissioners had in selecting her for the position.

“I’m eager to work with the existing staff and to build the public’s confidence that elections will be handled professionally and properly,” she said.

At the beginning of the meeting Grulkowski said she preferred for the commission’s deliberation on who to select to be in executive session, meaning the meeting would be closed off to the public, in order for commissioners to have a frank discussion and not be “censored.”

The commission confirmed with county legal the public’s right to know outweighed the right to privacy for commissioners or candidates.

Thompson also told the Daily Montanan she wouldn’t have applied for the job if she didn’t think she could do it, and said she has strong managerial skills, which the majority of the commissioners’ questions revolved around.

“As to the two specific questions they asked about election tasks, the skill set had to be learned by the prior Election Administrators and weren’t something that required a special certification or degree,” she said.

When asked how she plans to juggle training and a hectic election year, Thompson said she had been researching state statute and election rules for the past month in preparation for the interview.

“I’ll be prioritizing training for myself with every resource that’s available, relying on the staff to get me up to speed with the specific duties they have been handling day-to-day, and prioritizing the election calendar to be prepared for the upcoming elections,” she said.

Several residents in public comment commended the commission for how it handled the interview process and for selecting Thompson.

“I’m proud of you for not choosing someone that we’ve already voted out of office,” said resident Cheryl Lau.

Lau recognized the decision was difficult as Moore had experience, but was happy with the outcome.

Former Cascade County Commissioner and co-founder of the Election Protection Committee Jane Weber said she was concerned with the commission’s decision to move forward with someone with no election experience so close to the school board election in May and the primary in June.

“If there was an experienced staff in the election office, I’d be less concerned. But there is not experienced staff in the election office as was exhibited in past elections in 2023,” she said.

Commission Chairperson James Larson said the county would be sending Thompson her offer, with a salary of $69,000.