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Yellowstone County will accept no more private money for elections office

Posted at 7:27 PM, Aug 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-30 21:27:49-04

Yellowstone County commissioners have decided to forgo future grants from a nonprofit foundation that helped pay for election workers.

In 2020, the commissioners approved a $320,000 grant from the Center for Civic and Technical Life.

While no action was taken at a meeting on Tuesday, commissioners decided to no longer accept private grant money for the elections office.

In a world where election are under a microscope, perception is everything. And that's why a letter to Yellowstone County commissioners wasn't taken lightly. A taxpayer was concerned about the $320,000 private donation to the county elections office.

"We would appreciate complete transparency just to alleviate our concerns," said letter writer Kari B.B. "As we seen these things, like, why did the county accept $320,000 in outside funds?"

She wrote in the letter that she was concerned not only about Yellowstone County, but elsewhere.

That same nonprofit has awarded grants to more than 25 other county election offices across Montana, including Custer, Park, Stillwater, Sweetgrass and Wheatland counties.

In her letter, she cites the Montana Code, which states "all costs of the regularly scheduled primary and general elections shall be paid by the counties."

"A Montana law that says we are not to be taking outside funding to finance our elections," B.B. said.

Commissioner John Ostlund, a Republican, wants to leave the interpretation of the law to attorneys.

He said the county sought the grant because the money was needed to fund elections. But he understands the concerns.

"We took a grant that turns out that (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg was involved in and the grant was used to pay salaries and help with and stuff like that. What we've done with the grant money was all documented. But the question about whether or not should we should take private money is a good question. I don't believe that we should."

It's a decision that Ostlund says is nonpartisan, because again, perception is everything.

"We wouldn't want to take any private money in the future from the right to left or anyone," Ostlund said

It's a sentiment echoed by other commissioners and a policy they now plan to make official with a vote by November.

And it's a policy forever banning acceptance of private money for the elections office.