Commission seat to remain vacant until Sept. 13

Stillwater Republican Central Committee, 2 ex-commissioners say help is needed now
Thursday, July 21, 2022
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The District 2 Stillwater County Commission seat will remain vacant until at least Sept. 13, under the advice of the Stillwater County Attorney and against the urging of the Stillwater Republican Central Committee and two former commissioners.

For the commission and Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde, it’s a matter of ensuring election integrity and allowing the complete election process to finish.

For those who want the seat filled now, it’s a matter of getting much needed help for the southern end of the county as it tries to recover from historic flooding and letting the Primary election winner Jeff Ruffatto take office early.

COMMISSION DECISION

The topic was addressed at last Tuesday’s agenda meeting when Commission Chairman Tyrel Hamilton asked Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde for a report on the topic.

“I am advising the commission to forgo any appointment at this time. I have that opinion because we still have an election process in place. We have the General Election in November and my advice is based upon the fact that the government is not going to violate any potential citizen’s rights to engage in the election process.”

Secondly, Rohde said that “we are going to ensure” that the General Election is done “with integrity and full fairness.”

Rohde also said that it’s the commission’s decision on whether to go forward with an appointment or wait.

“It they choose to add a third person, my further advice to them is that they will ask the (Stillwater Republican Central Committee) again for three names of people who are qualified from that district and who are willing and able to accept the short-term appointment for the remainder of the year,” said Rohde.

Following Rohde’s comments, Commissioner Steve Riveland moved to table any action on the matter until Sept. 13. Hamilton seconded the motion and then asked “do we have any discussion from the floor?”

WHY WAIT?

Former Commissioner Maureen Davey was the first to speak, saying “I’m certainly not an attorney but I have read that statute numerous times and to me it’s clear,” going on to say that the Primary Election was held and was fair.

“It sounds like the county attorney thinks it won’t be a fair election if we appoint somebody,” said Davey. “I think we’re not fair to the person that won that election and I think were not fair to the people in the south end of this county that deserve a commissioner right now,” said Davey.

Jeff Ruffatto won the Primary Election over Ron Van Hoosear. Because both candidates ran as Republicans, only Ruffatto advances to the General Election, making him the sole candidate currently on the ballot.

Ruffatto has been attending most county meetings for months, including floodingrelated business. He has said he is ready and willing to assume his elected position whenever needed.

Stillwater Republican Central Committee member Dan O’Neil told Hamilton and Riveland that he disagreed with the county attorney’s opinion on the matter, clarifying that he himself is not an attorney.

Like Davey, O’Neil told the commission that it must “follow the law” which includes the term “shall appoint.”

“Why is this a concerning problem to do what the statute says?” asked O’Neil. “I’m very disappointed in both the commission and the county attorney, in this case.”

Citizen Jim Movius spoke next, saying he respects the opinion of the county attorney and told the commission that they should follow what she says.

“She’s there to keep you out of trouble,” said Movius, who also serves on the citizen Facilities Capital Improvement Plan project.

However, Movius said he doesn’t think that appointing someone would give them an unfair advantage. He added that “the will of the people who voted and importance of having the commission at full strength outweighs any risk or disadvantage that might occur to another candidate.”

Movius said the commission should ask Rohde exactly what kind of liability the county would face if it did appoint someone. Stillwater Republican Central Committee Chair Fiona Nave (who is also the state HD 57 representative) said she too disagreed with Rohde and at this point, no other candidate has come forward that indicates a write-in candidate is coming.

As a compromise, Nave suggested that the commission revisit the matter after the write-in candidate deadline of Sept. 9.

Riveland responded that is precisely why his motion was to table the matter until Sept. 13, which is the first Tuesday after that write-in deadline.

O’Neil asked what it is that the commission is “so afraid of.”

“We’re not afraid of anything rather than the election integrity,” said Riveland.

Columbus resident Carol Cushen was the first to offer light on a possible reason behind Rohde’s legal advice, saying she had it “on pretty good authority that there might be a write-in candidate.”

Former Commissioner Jerry Dell said that if there is a concern about the possibility of another candidate, it would be “no different than if someone was running against the incumbent, if there was an incumbent.”

Dell’s name was one of the three submitted to the commission by the Stillwater Republican Central Committee on June 23. The other two were Diana Scollard and Ruffatto.

FOR THE SAKE OF THE SOUTH COUNTY

Dell made perhaps the most compelling argument for filling the vacant seat now.

“I really strongly feel that the south-end of the county is getting short-changed by this decision. With everything that’s going on and the decisions that have to be made about money to be spent in the south part of the county after the recent flood that we’ve had, I think you need a third person in there and I think you need him now.”

Dell also pointed out that the voters have already spoken “and spoken loud” through Ruffatto’s Primary Election victory.

Dell also pointed out that during his brief political career, he saw three write-in candidates lose badly.

Brandon Garoutte directed a question to Rohde.

“If they (commissioners) decide to make a decision going against your advice, can you represent them as the county?”

“I cannot,” replied Rohde.

Hamilton agreed that the southern county needs representation and needs it “as soon as responsible.”

Hamilton also said that he is not going to put the commission in a position in which it cannot have representation from the county attorney.

Nave addressed the commission a second time, saying the people in the southern county are the most important part of this issue.

“The thing that’s important is the people in the south county — not the commission. You need to understand that yes, you have some obligations and yes, you have a statute that tells you what to do and you’re getting legal advice from our county attorney. But the important, most critical factor in this is not you guys — it’s the people in the south county,” said Nave. “Those people need assistance. The two of you are not enough.”

Riveland was quick to counter.

“First of all, it’s not about us. And it’s not about who fills this seat,” said Riveland, saying the commission would be taking the same action regardless of who won the Primary simply due to the fact that there is a write-in candidate option available.

“It’s not about who. It’s not about us. It’s about the process,” said Riveland.

Davey then asked that if the commission was going to make this about the process, she didn’t understand why it came to the Stillwater Republican Central Committee to ask for three names.

“I don’t think we did,” said Riveland — a statement that was backed up by others in attendance.

FAMILIAR FOES

While serving as a Stillwater County Commissioner, Davey and Rohde were familiar foes — with Davey at times speaking out and going against Rohde’s legal advice.

Most notably, in September 2017, Davey removed 22 boxes of county claims from Rohde’s office that had been pulled as the result of a citizen’s Freedom of Information Act request.

The citizen believed the commission was spending money on the old hospital and not being transparent with the public about it. Rohde and the citizen attorney’s were about a week into reviewing the claims in her office, which due to space constraints, is located away from the courthouse.

When Davey learned about the boxes, she removed them from Rohde’s office early one morning before Rohde arrived at work.

Davey defended her actions by saying the claims were county records that should not have left the courthouse.

Rohde had to threaten court intervention to get the boxes back and in the end, a compromise was reached. But not before a meeting was held at which Davey accused Rohde of acting secretively and then Commissioner Mark Crago telling Davey that it was her who had acted inappropriately in the matter.