Rep. Frank Garner, R. Kalispell, pictured here offering bill testimony in 2019. Credit: John S. Adams/MTFP

HELENA  — A bill meant to clarify county political committee procedures and abate intra-party skirmishes drew voices of support from around the state during a hearing Wednesday.

Certain county central committees have become hotbeds for an ideological power struggle among Montana’s Republicans. Great Falls has emerged as ground zero in the fight. Within the Cascade County Central Committee, a group of moderate Republicans has long butted heads with a faction prioritizing loyalty to the party platform. House Bill 318 attempts to address issues springing from that fray, including secret rules, unapproved proxies, and stacking vacant seats with people loyal to committee leadership.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is carrying the bill. He summarized its benefits Wednesday before the House State Administration Committee.

“It’s a bill, to be clear, to prevent the fraudulent use of the vote of officials that are specifically identified in the Montana code, and one that intends to clearly set expectations for processes in our political central committees,” Garner said.

HB 318 clarifies that county party rules must be filed with local election administrators before they become effective. The bill requires written approval from elected or appointed precinct representatives for proxies. The bill states that elected precinct representatives can only have their committee seats vacated in the event of death, resignation, felony conviction, or after relocating out of the precinct. It also prohibits filing false trademarks for central committees, meaning an individual can’t falsely use the committee name without permission.

Central committees drum up support for campaigns. They appoint candidates to some vacancies in primary elections and recommend replacements for some elected officials.

“We have vested powers in these committees. This is not the book club,” Garner said.

Garner noted that he had no qualms with his own Republican central committee in Flathead County but said spats in other counties set a bad precedent.

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The most recent breakdown at the Cascade County Central committee centered around the 2018 June primary election. Ahead of the election, the committee appointed five people to vacant seats in precincts where no candidates filed to run. After the primary, a group looking to reform the committee won a majority of its seats. Clashes and chaotic meetings ensued.

The reform group, led by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, sought to appoint its own county officers in the hallway after committee chair Sheridan Buck adjourned a particularly contentious meeting shortly after the primary.

The Montana Republican Party determined the hallway meeting was invalid. It also invalidated Buck’s pre-primary committee seat appointments, since Montana Republican Party bylaws state precinct committee appointments end after the primary election.

Vacancies can only be filled after a properly called meeting with a quorum of committee members present, according to the bylaws.

Fitzpatrick and his supporters stopped attending meetings and prevented a quorum. Buck and her supporters responded by appointing proxies to vote in members’ absence. The committee executive board also created new rules vacating committee seats if the elected member had more than three unexcused absences.

Although Garner is sponsoring HB 318, Fitzpatrick wrote the bill.

Various groups of “political activists” have worked to undermine the electoral process, said Roger Hagan, a Fitzpatrick ally and member of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee.

“When an election doesn’t go their way, they try to nullify the vote and stay in office despite the will of the people,” Hagan said during the hearing. “Since when can an administrative process be used to remove duly elected officials from office?”

While Cascade County’s Republican infighting has received a lot of attention, proponents of HB 318 said similar conflicts have emerged in other county committees.

Members of the House State Administration Committee meeting in the Montana Capitol. Pictured from left to right are committee staffer Sheri Scurr, Vice Chair Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, Chair Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, and Vice Chair Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre. Credit: JOHN S. ADAMS / MTFP

Rep. Bruce Grubbs, R-Bozeman, serves on the Gallatin County Republican Central Committee. He said 20 vacant seats were appointed before the newly elected committee could meet. After some digging, Grubbs said he discovered the seats had been appointed before the primary, and that committee members voted to re-appoint themselves rather than run for election.

“I challenged the chairman at the next meeting, and I was pretty much ignored,” Grubbs said.

The Gallatin County Central Committee chair also rebuked one of the newly elected committee members for endorsing a Democratic friend for county auditor, Grubbs said.

“The chairman said if he didn’t apologize, then the central committee would vote him out of office,” Grubbs said. “Which is not legal, I don’t think, because the voters of our precinct are the ones who voted him in.”

The chairman, Grubbs said, was making his own rules.

Ted Kronebusch, chair of the Pondera County Republican Central Committee, said county political parties need the clarity HB 318 could provide.

“This proposed bill would increase transparency by eliminating existing opportunities for unintended things to happen,” Kronebusch said. “We should never think it is right for a committee to operate under secret rules, rules that are only known to members of the executive board and never approved by the entire committee.”

No opponents of the bill spoke at the House State Administration hearing, but precedent shows it could become more combative as HB 318 moves through the legislative process.

One 2015 bill, for example, revised how parties select representatives for precincts and threw a wrench into central committee lawsuits against open primaries. It passed a House committee without many scuffles, caused a stir on the House floor, and then had a raucous hearing after proceeding to a Senate committee. Opponents from county central committees were gaveled down and removed from the podium for lack of decorum.

Garner, however, said the HB 318’s goals should not cause controversy.

“While others are going to find the devil in the details here and try to see these simple reforms as an opportunity to divide,” Garner said, “these are the kinds of things that should bring us together for the purpose of focusing on our processes, not personalities, so we can restore integrity.”

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.