Weston County commissioners to be questioned over secret ballot vote

NEWCASTLE — The Weston County commissioners involved in the secret ballot vote to replace former Rep. Hans Hunt in 2021 will be deposed in the coming days, according to information provided by the plaintiffs’ attorney Bruce Moats. 

The depositions are the next step in an amended lawsuit challenging the legality of the secret ballot, Moats said, and the information obtained through the depositions will be used in the hearing that is scheduled to be held in the matter later this spring. 

“The information sought in the depositions primarily will be how the commissioners conducted public business, particularly communications outside announced or scheduled meetings,” Moats said. “The length of the depositions will depend on the answers given, but the depositions here are not expected to last more than two hours each.” 

Moats is representing the News Letter Journal, Kari Drost, Patricia Bauman and Raymond Norris. 

The group originally sued the commissioners over the secret ballot vote used to appoint a person to fill Hunt’s unexpired term after he resigned to take a job in Washington, D.C. 

Current Weston County commissioners Nathan Todd, Ed Wagoner and Don Taylor will be deposed, as well as former commissioners Marty Ertman and Tony Barton. The depositions are to take place in Newcastle, although the date and time is yet to be determined. 

“This whole thing has gotten to the point of being pretty sad, really,” said Bob Bonnar, publisher of the News Letter Journal. “From the start, the commissioners refused to answer questions from the newspaper and the public about the secret ballot to select the people’s representative in the Wyoming House, and it will be a relief to finally have them answer for their actions in court and under oath. I never have understood why this had to be such a secret, and I hope we finally find out what motivated them to do this in the first place.” 

The plaintiffs have already prevailed in one hearing. 

After Moats filed a motion to amend the complaint against the Board of Weston County Commissioners to include text messages that have been discovered in which county business was conducted in apparent violation of Wyoming law, the county commissioners responded by rejecting the amended lawsuit, and a hearing was held on February 21 to determine if the amended lawsuit would be accepted by the court. 

At the conclusion of that hearing, Judge Stuart S. Healy III, of the District Court in the Sixth Judicial District, accepted the lawsuit challenging the legality of the secret ballot and allowed the plaintiffs to include the text messages in their complaint. 

He also ruled that the hearing on the lawsuit will take place in Weston County in June. 

After the amended lawsuit was accepted by Healy, Tucker Ruby, the Johnson County Attorney who is representing the Weston County commissioners in the case, had the opportunity to offer the defendant’s answers to the specific points in the complaint (Petition) and offer an affirmative defense on behalf of the board of commissioners. 

This document, dated March 20, includes the board’s denial or admittance of various issues raised in the complaint — including the secret ballot, use of text messages and whether or not the commissioners allowed the public to comment on the issues in public meetings. 

In total, Ruby responded to 44 different claims laid out by Moats in the petition, and the majority of the answers simply state that “defendants are without sufficient information to form a conclusion as to the truth or falsity such as to admit or deny the allegations.” 

In some instances, the commissioners answer was that a specific claim in “the Petition is not an allegation which requires a response. Wyoming law speaks for itself. To the extent that a response is required, Defendants deny the allegations contained.” 

In the commissioner’s response to the Petition, Ruby does directly admit or deny some of the claims on behalf of the board. 

The defendants admit that the board is subject to the Wyoming Public Meetings Act and the Wyoming Public Records Act, and that Hunt resigned and left a vacant seat that needed to be filled. 

The commissioners also admit that the boards of commissioners from Niobrara, Weston and Goshen counties met in Lusk and selected former Rep. J.D. Williams as Hunt’s replacement. 

However, the commissioners’ denials begin with the 8th claim listed by Moats in the Petition, which states that “the commissioners reportedly agreed to conduct a secret ballot, where the votes of the individual commissioners would be kept from the public. No record of a specific vote to authorize the secret ballot appears on the minutes of the joint meeting, or any minutes of the Weston County Commissioners.” 

The defendants also deny that the secret ballot is “contrary to the Wyoming Public Meetings Act” and that the public was rebuffed when trying to obtain answers from the commissioners about the secret ballot and the process used to determine that method would be used to select Hunt’s replacement. 

The board also denied in their court filing that the News Letter Journal has made multiple requests for records regarding the selection process, and that the commissioners also refused to allow public comment on the issue at one of their meetings after reading a statement regarding their use of a secret ballot more than a year after the vote took place. 

“I’m not surprised they deny everything in their answer to our petition. That follows a pattern of denial that we’ve encountered throughout this process,” Bonnar said. “At the very beginning of our lawsuit last year, they were supposed to have turned any communication or documentation over to us that related to the selection of a House District 2 representative. They claimed they gave us all of that information, and then a couple of months later we discover a text thread between all of the commissioners and the county clerk — that included discussion about the selection of the House District 2 representative. It makes it hard to trust them when they say they’ve given us all the information, and I’m sure we will find out more now that our attorney will be able to question them directly.” 

The commissioners also directly deny several of the accusations related to the amended lawsuit after a slew of group text messages among the commissioners was added to the complaint. 

The defendants denied in their answer to the Petition that the board had used text messages to communicate, that they conducted public business in said text messages, that they communicated as a quorum via text message, and that the texts included discussion, deliberation, and presentation of information of public business. 

They also deny that the texts included votes on expenditures of public funds, or that the group text constituted an unannounced meeting in violation of the Wyoming Open Meetings Act. 

“It should be hard to believe that they somehow still deny in a legal filing that they used text messages to discuss the selection — even after we published the text messages online for everybody to see — but I can’t say I’m surprised,” Bonnar said. “They deny. We discover. That’s been the pattern, and I’m confident it will hold true once depositions begin. I’m glad this issue will have its day in court, and hopeful we can finally give the people of Weston County the whole story behind the commissioners’ actions.”