Commissioners request case dismissal

Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

The Weston County Commission has denied any wrongdoing or violation of state law and has asked the court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the News Letter Journal, Kari Drost, Patricia Baumann and Raymond Norris against the commissioners. At issue is a secret ballot vote used to appoint former Wyoming Rep. Hans Hunt’s replacement in October of last year, according to documents filed in the Sixth Judicial District Court. 

According to attorney Bruce Moats, who is representing the News Letter Journal and the other plaintiffs, dismissal requests are standard in this type of case. He explained that the Weston County has not filed a formal motion to dismiss the News Letter Journal’s petition but merely asks that the Court deny the claims after discovery and hearing is completed in the case.

Throughout the request, Johnson County Attorney Tucker Ruby denies many of the claims presented by Moats in the original declaratory judgment petition. Ruby was appointed to represent the county commissioners after Weston County Attorney Michael Stulken asked for a special prosecutor due to a “conflict of interest.” 

As previously reported, Hunt resigned from his House seat on Oct. 1, 2021, leaving a vacancy to be filled by the commissioners from Weston, Goshen and Niobrara counties. The three boards met in Lusk on Oct. 19 and selected J.D. Williams as the replacement for Hunt. 

These facts listed in the lawsuit are undisputed by the commissioners. Also undisputed is the board’s position as the governing body for Weston County and therefore subject to the Wyoming Public Meetings Act and the Wyoming Public Records Act. They also confirm that the votes were “weighted in proportion to the number of commissioners on each board and the population of the county.” 

The documents also confirm on behalf of the commissioners that Commissioner Don Taylor revealed his vote to the public, stating that he was not in favor of the secret ballot.

But beyond confirming these facts laid out in the case filed by the News Letter Journal and others, the board denies any wrongdoing or violation of state law. 

The documents state that the board denies the statement that “no record of specific vote to authorize the secret ballot appears on the minutes of the joint meeting, or any minutes of the Weston County Commissioners.”

They also deny reports from Drost that the public “was not allowed to see the rules nor comment on them before the selection process was undertaken and no discussion of a secret ballot vote was undertaken at the Lusk meeting prior to the secret ballots being handed to the commissioners.” 

The response from the county says that the “defendants are without sufficient information to form a conclusion as to the truth or falsity such as to admit or deny the allegation” and therefore “deny the same.” 

This statement is used multiple times to answer several of the charges in the lawsuit, including well documented assertions by the plaintiffs that the secret ballot was contrary to the Public Meetings Act, that the plaintiffs were denied information on the vote and even that Drost questioned the secret ballot vote during the Lusk meeting where the secret ballot was used. 

The dismissal request used the same statement to further deny that “Weston County residents, including the Plaintiffs, attempts to obtain answers from the county commissioners at subsequent commission meetings were rebuffed. The commission told residents that, upon legal advice, they were not going to discuss the issue further.” 

The commission also denies that the News Letter Journal has made multiple attempts to obtain records regarding the selection process, as well as a revelation of how each commissioner voted specifically.

“I was a bit surprised by the blanket denial of so many things that I thought were indisputable facts,” News Letter Journal Publisher Bob Bonnar said. “We know that a secret ballot was used, and that Mrs. Drost questioned that as it was taking place in the meeting. We certainly know that the newspaper has been asking for information, and that the commission said they weren’t going to discuss any of it on the advice of their attorney, so I didn’t expect them to dispute those things now.”

The commissioners also deny claims related to the Public Records Act violation. These disputed claims, made in the original petition, include that the documents related to the vote and secret ballot decision are subject to public records requests and that the failure to identify the commissioners marking each ballot frustrates the purpose of the Public Records Act, as well as the Public Meetings Act. 

When addressing the specific claim that the commission violated the Public Meetings Act, the documents filed by Ruby simply state that “Wyoming law speaks for itself.” 

“The plaintiffs have an interest in how their representatives voted in stepping into the shoes of the public and selecting their representatives in the Wyoming State House,” the petition states. 

As part of their affirmative defense, the commissioners argue that the complaint fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted and that the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust other remedies.

The defendants also include in their list of affirmative defenses that the petition fails to include other indispensable parties (the Goshen and Niobrara county commissioners who also represent Hunt’s former legislative district and also used secret ballots in the selection of his replacement). 

“Plaintiffs’ damages, if any, are caused, at least in part, by the acts or omissions of other persons or entities over which defendants had neither control nor right of control,” the document states, noting that the plaintiffs have failed to mitigate its damages, if there are any. 

In addition to requesting the ultimate dismissal of the action, the commission is seeking an award for costs and expenses incurred in defending this suit, and for such other relief as the court deems just and equitable. 

“What struck me about the answer was the number of times the commissioners neither admitted or denied an allegation, stating they lacked sufficient information. We will endeavor to learn more through discovery about what happened here as well as their observation of the Public Meetings Act,” Moats said about the request filed by the commissioners.

“We undertook this action in an effort to learn more and provide information to the people of Weston County that they are entitled to,” Bonnar agreed. “We will continue to move forward and have faith that the system will deliver that information to the public.”

News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
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P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
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