Monday, April 15, 2024

Kalispell councilors step down after judge orders election redo

Daily Inter Lake | February 22, 2024 12:00 AM

A pair of Kalispell city councilors stepped aside Tuesday night to let officials determine how best to proceed after a judge annulled the elections of both.

“We are in uncharted waters,” City Manager Doug Russell said, with Councilor Kari Gabriel and Councilor Sam Nunnally physically departing the dais.

Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison ruled Feb. 16 that a clerical error resulting in incorrect ballots going out to some voters in Kalispell could have changed the outcome in two of four city council races held in November. His order came at the behest of county Clerk and Recorder Debbie Pierson, whose office was behind the mistake, which stemmed from using outdated ward boundaries to distribute ballots.

In Ward 1, incumbent Gabriel beat out challenger Wes Walker by 80 votes, but 124 incorrect ballots were cast in that race. In Ward 2, incumbent Nunnally topped rival Gabriel Dillon by 109 votes with 155 incorrect ballots cast, according to court documents.

Allison allowed the other two city councilor elections to stand. Sid Daoud ran unopposed in Ward 4 and incumbent Ryan Hunter beat his challenger by more votes than the total number of incorrect ballots cast in his Ward 3 race.

Although the ruling provided some clarity for city and county officials, who have grappled with the error since its discovery in the days immediately before the Nov. 7 election, municipal officials are still determining a path forward. 

Russell said that the ruling could have created two vacancies on Council, though that remained unclear. Were that the case, state law would require Council to fill the vacancies within 30 days with the seats going on the next general municipal election ballot, he said.

Russell said he hoped to have more clarity in the near future. In the meantime, Gabriel and Nunnally agreed to stay on the sidelines, he said.

“… We've asked Council members Nunnally and Gabriel to remove themselves from the dais just in case of a procedural issue with the courts and potentially putting votes in jeopardy,” Russell said.

STILL, THE Council of five — with Mayor Mark Johnson absent — approved the city staff’s prioritized list of infrastructure projects eligible for funding through the State-Local Infrastructure Partnership Act.

Municipal officials placed an effort to inventory and replace the city’s lead service lines, at an overall cost of about $250,000, at the top of their list. They followed with a roughly $453,306 street and drainage repair project on Meridian Court; an estimated $750,000 sewer main sliplining project; and a roughly $633,950 repair project along Ninth Street East.

Council’s decision followed a public hearing that included Margaret E. Davis asking that the body consider adding an HVAC replacement project at the Northwest Montana History Museum to the list. Davis serves as the museum’s executive director.

Fixing the system would prevent frozen pipes and flooding — which could threaten the museum’s collection — in the future, she said.

But Russell indicated that the museum, like the Conrad Mansion, must fend for itself when it comes to maintenance. The groups behind the local institutions agreed to foot the bill for upkeep when the buildings were leased from the city, he told Council. 

Council’s priority remained reducing the tax burden on residents, he said, and undertaking repairs at the museum would go against that goal. 

Councilors, meanwhile, favorably viewed the lead service line inventory and replacement effort. Councilor Jessica Dahlman argued to keep it at the top of the priority list.

“We have to keep children safe,” she said.

Council President Chad Graham said the lead pipe survey must be done, and “the money’s got to come from somewhere, so I agree with that.” 

Kalispell is up for as much as $313,674 in state funding for eligible infrastructure projects. The dollars come with a 25% cash match requirement. 

COUNCIL ALSO approved an application for a federal grant that would provide $25 million for the completion of the final 2 miles of the U.S. 93 bypass.

The project would join Airport Road to the Foys Lake roundabout.

Jared Nygren, the city’s planning head, described the U.S. 93 bypass overall as a success.

“It takes 16 minutes to get through town, but only six on the bypass,” he told Council, listing other benefits of the alternate route, like fuel reduction, traffic safety, efficiency and fewer large trucks rumbling through downtown Kalispell.

Completion of the final phase of work would see the four-lane bypass through from Foy’s Lake Road interchange down to Airport Road, where there would be an overpass. The project also includes improvements to intersections and shared use path improvements. 

City Hall is working in conjunction with the Montana Department of Transportation to secure the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, grant. 

“MDT has been planning this for so many years that we can go after this grant,” Nygren said. “We’re thankful for that.” 

“I’m excited to see this come to fruition,” Dahlman said, adding, “This is great for Kalispell and our downtown plan.” 

Councilor Sid Daoud also approved, arguing that the improvements will benefit large housing developments in the works along the bypass. 

OTHER ITEMS taken up by Council included the rejection of high bids for a maintenance project on the wastewater plant and the approval of the purchase of two new patrol vehicles for the Kalispell Police Department.

Council also approved a planned unit development for the third phase of Meadows Edge, approximately 16.77 acres northwest of Farm To Market Road and Three Mile Road, which will include 31 residential lots and a common area.

During public comment, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lorraine Clarno raised concerns about vagrancy in downtown thoroughfares. She urged the Police Department to increase its presence between the Flathead Warming Center, Gateway Community Center and the city’s downtown area. 

She added that the chamber and the Kalispell Business Improvement District are moving to create more family-friendly events in parks and on the Parkline Trail.

Clarno requested that Council invest in more security cameras, and reminded everyone that there is a registration service in which businesses may allow law enforcement to monitor surveillance footage. 

Reporter Carl Foster can be reached at 758-4407 or