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Complaints pile up in Kalispell School Board dispute

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | April 27, 2021 4:49 PM

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices has found nine current Kalispell Public School board trustees in violation of campaign finance practice laws for failure to register with the commissioner in a timely manner in past school elections and the upcoming May 4 election.

Trustees named in the complaints include Sue Corrigan, Vice Chairman Jack Fallon, Will Hiatt, Chairman Lance Isaak, Mark Kornick, Amy Waller, Scott Warnell, Ursula Wilde and Kim Wilson.

The Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) referred the matter to the county attorney of Lewis and Clark County. These kinds of matters typically are then referred back to the commissioner and generally are handled with fines. According to the COPP, most matters are resolved through a negotiated fine and cooperation in correcting issues raised in the complaints. In one settlement letter, which trustee Sue Corrigan forwarded in an email to the Daily Inter Lake, a fine of $200 was offered to resolve the matter.

Lakeside resident Lloyd Bondy initially filed the complaints, which were received by the commissioner on April 5 and questioned the legitimacy of their positions as trustees due to not properly registering.

According to Commissioner Jeff Mangan’s findings in decisions issued April 14 and 19, the trustees did not file a C-1A “Statement of Candidate” form with the commissioner within five days of becoming trustee candidates for Kalispell Public Schools as required by state law, namely Montana Code Annotated 13-37-201.

According to politicalpractices.mt.gov: “All candidates campaigning for school trustee offices in first-class districts located in counties with populations of 15,000 and more or in county high school districts having student enrollments of 2,000 or more must file a Form C-1A.”

The C-1A form asks for information such as a candidate’s full name, address, the office he or she is seeking, in addition to financial information including the name of a candidate’s campaign treasurer, campaign account information and whether or not a candidate anticipates campaign expenditures or contributions will exceed $500.

CONFUSION MAY have arisen when all but one candidate previously HAD been seated by acclamation. This means the number of trustee candidates equaled the number of open positions and trustee elections were canceled in the cases of Corrigan, Fallon, Hiatt, Isaak, Kornick, Waller, Warnell and Wilde. Wilson was previously appointed to fill a board vacancy and an election was not held. Trustees were then certified by Kalispell Public Schools Clerk and Director of Business Service Gwyn Andersen, the board Chairman Lance Isaak and sworn in by Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Jack Eggensperger.

Under the commissioner’s decision, however, he states “The failure to fully and timely report and disclose cannot generally be excused by oversight or ignorance. Excusable neglect cannot be applied to oversight or ignorance of the law as it relates to failures to file and report,”

On April 7, Andersen emailed the COPP, asking for clarification on campaign practices and included C-1A forms completed by respective trustees and kept on file by the district, in addition to the Declaration of Intent and Oath of Candidacy forms filed with the district and certificates of election by acclamation.

In the email, Andersen stated that in the past she printed hard copies of the C-1A forms (which may now be completed online) for candidates to return to her when completed and sent them off to the COPP in one mailing. In instances where trustee elections were canceled, however, Andersen said she did not mail the completed forms, because, “No election, no campaign, no campaign finance reports,” adding, “That may have been my error.” With the filing process now completed online, Andersen asked, going forward, if she should advise trustees to complete the form whether or not an election has been canceled.

The commissioner stated in the “discussion” portion of the decisions that “Ultimate responsibility in meeting the requirements on Mont. Code Ann. 13-37-201, falls on the candidate, not the COPP or any other entity or agency which the candidate interacts with. Like any other candidate, school trustee candidates assume all responsibility for complying with applicable Montana campaign finance law regardless of what contact (if any) the candidate has with COPP staff.”

IN THE time since these decisions came out, three new campaign practice complaints have been added to the docket. The complaints received by the COPP on April 22 were filed by Kalispell resident Courtney Rappleye against current trustee candidates Heather Asher, Patricia “Trish” Pandina and Tina Tobiason.

In Rappleye’s complaints, she alleges more than five days passed between the time the candidates filed declarations of intent with the school district and when they registered with the COPP. In the complaint against Pandina, she also claimed the candidate does not live in Kalispell, which is a requirement to be an elementary trustee.

This is not the first time the commissioner has responded to complaints involving Kalispell Public Schools trustee elections.

In March, the commissioner dismissed a complaint filed by Kalispell resident Sara Busse about campaign signs for school board candidates that initially didn’t include “paid for” disclosures after the issue was resolved through “prompt remedial action” by Pandina.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com