Lawsuit offer rejected

By: 
Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

The Board of Weston County Commissioners has again rejected a settlement proposed by a group that has sought legal action over the manner in which a vacancy in the Wyoming House of Representatives was filled.

Bruce Moats is representing the News Letter Journal, Kari Drost, Patricia Bauman and Raymond Norris, and he informed them last week that their most recent settlement offer had been rejected. They are suing the commissioners over the secret-ballot vote used to appoint a person to fill the unexpired term of former Wyoming Rep. Hans Hunt in October 2022 after he resigned to take a job in Washington, D.C.  

During an executive session at a special meeting on Tuesday Jan. 10, the board discussed the proposed settlement with its attorney, Tucker Ruby, who serves as the Johnson County attorney. Ruby is representing the commissioners in the lawsuit because of a claimed conflict of interest by Weston County Attorney Michael Stulken. 

According to the information provided by Moats, the settlement offer included an independent transparency review of county government by outside parties. The proposed settlement would also require disclosure of the full set of the rules governing the appointment process for the House District 2 seat and an agreement to a consent decree specifying the secret ballots constituted a violation of the Public Meetings Act. The updated offer from the News Letter Journal and its co-plaintiffs also asked for full disclosure of all group text messages sent by the commissioners for the past two years as an acknowledgement that they are public records and/or that the recently discovered group texts constitute virtual meetings. 

“We are asking for the same kind of review undertaken in Gillette when inspection of emails revealed abuse of power and public trust by members of the City Council there. We’ve already uncovered similar abuses in the Weston County government since we began this legal action — most notably the frequent use of group text messages by the commissioners to circumvent the open meeting laws of Wyoming and keep the people of Weston County in the dark. The people of Weston County deserve to know what other wrong-doings have been taking place,” News Letter Journal publisher Bob Bonnar said. 

The settlement was rejected on Wednesday, Jan. 11, according to Moats. 

“We are very disappointed that our settlement offer has been rejected again. We had hoped that the arrival of new commissioners would result in a willingness to come clean about the transgressions of past commissioners, but we ended up with the same result,” Bonnar said. 

At the time the lawsuit was filed, both former commissioners Marty Ertman and Tony Barton were serving on the board. Since then, two new commissioners, Vera Huber and Garrett Borton, have joined the board. 

“Like everything else they have done since the House District 2 seat became vacant, this decision was made behind closed doors. Unfortunately, that means we can’t know for sure which commissioners want to keep dragging this out in court,” Bonnar continued, regarding the vote on the settlement offer. “Since there are now only two of the five current commissioners (Commissioners Nathan Todd and Ed Wagoner) who were in support of using the secret ballot, we can safely assume that one of the newly elected commissioners is choosing to help them hide these secrets.” 

According to Bonnar, the commissioners are standing by their supposed right to vote by secret ballot. He noted that the email thread between Moats and Ruby did include a very unsatisfying counteroffer proposed by the county in which they claim that elected officials can use a secret ballot to make decisions as long as they disclose at some later point what their votes were. This is something he said the News Letter Journal and co-plaintiffs refuse to accept. 

“They waited a year — and for an election to pass — before they revealed their votes for the House seat, and it is ridiculous for them to claim that is all right,” Bonnar said. “Their actions were illegal when they took the secret ballot, and they are still illegal. Period.” 

Ruby also reported to Moats that another reason for the rejection of the settlement offer was that the county does not have the funds to undertake an external review. This claim of a lack of funds, Bonnar stated, comes despite the commission’s payment of $20,000 to have its own “hand-picked deputy county attorney conduct a supposed review and provide training to assure the public trust isn’t violated again.” 

“Since then, however, we have uncovered their continued use of a secret group text thread, so they clearly weren’t really interested in correcting their mistakes or coming clean, and now it appears the new commission wants to hold that line,” Bonnar said. “If they won’t voluntarily submit to an external review, I guess we will have to conduct that review through depositions and testimony in court. We have come too far to turn back now, and they owe the people of Weston County some answers.” 

Because of the lack of a satisfying settlement, he said, it is likely that the lawsuit will proceed with depositions and a court hearing. 

“We were informed last week by Johnson County Attorney Tucker Ruby that the Weston County commissioners have rejected our settlement offer again, so the News Letter Journal and our co-plaintiffs are moving forward with our lawsuit against the commission,” Bonnar said. “We will start setting up depositions of the defendants and other potential witnesses through the court.” 

Bonnar added that the lawsuit will be amended to include the text messages that were of continual use by the commissioners despite the trainers telling the commission that group text messages are a clear violation of the law, as reported by the News Letter Journal in October. However, despite the lack of settlement, Moats reported that Ruby indicated last week that the defendants were willing to concede that point and that the News Letter Journal and the other plaintiffs would be receiving the group text messages for review but access to the texts had not been provided prior to press time.

 

News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
14 W. Main St.
P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
Fax: (307) 746-2660

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