Recount Imminent as New Whitefish Council Takes Shape

By Beacon Staff

Three days after the Flathead County Election Department declared him a winner in the Whitefish City Council election, and two days after the department declared him a loser, Turner Askew requested a hand recount of the votes.

“It just will bring closure to the election,” Askew said. “Either I’m a winner or I’m in second place, and second place doesn’t count.” Then Askew caught himself, adding, “Or rather, fourth place doesn’t count.”

Tuesday night, Nov. 6, Askew was the apparent winner of the third open slot on the council with 608 votes, narrowly defeating Martin McGrew by four votes. The following day, county election workers recounted the mail-in ballots twice and recorded several hundred more votes, changing the standings. McGrew emerged the victor with 694 votes to Askew’s 692.

Flathead Election Supervisor Monica Eisenzimer explained that the voting discrepancies happened because election workers were stuffing ballots into the voting machines too quickly.

“On Tuesday night when they were feeding them, (the vote-counting machine) was accepting them, but it wasn’t registering them,” Eisenzimer said, adding that she wanted to recount the ballots that night, but it was late and people were clamoring for the results, so she released the initial counts even though she had her doubts. “Next time, everybody will wait and I’ll go with my gut.”

By law, Askew is entitled to a recount, and said he was encouraged by county officials to do so.

“No one’s ever going to believe that they found over 200 ballots between election night and Wednesday morning,” Askew said. “If there was a mistake, we’ll correct it and if there wasn’t, then that’s how it is.”

Flathead County Election Administrator Paula Robinson has tentatively scheduled the recount for Nov. 16, and said the recount will be limited to tabulating votes only for Askew and McGrew – not a comprehensive recount of all votes.

The other two open seats on the council were won handily by incumbent John Muhlfeld with 1,141 votes and Ryan Friel with 1,003 – both of whom tend to favor more controlled growth. Michael Jenson will once again serve as mayor, after winning 1,008 votes to defeat incumbent Cris Coughlin.

All the victors interviewed described a desire to end a period of Whitefish politics marked by divisiveness, bitterness and tension over growth and development on the city’s outskirts.

“People were ready for a change in attitude as much as anything,” Jenson said. “I’m not interested in setting a confrontational tone.”

Muhlfeld acknowledged the political tone in recent months, but said he thinks the council, in its new makeup, will benefit from “a more diverse dialogue, a broader spectrum of discussion.”

“It’s been a pretty polarizing time,” Muhlfeld added. “(Jenson) has earned the respect of the individuals who think their opinions and ideas haven’t been listened to.”

The ever-controversial Critical Areas Ordinance was a crux issue in the run-up to the election, and several Political Action Committees (PACs) endorsed candidates based partly on their support or opposition to the measure. Montana Conservation Voters endorsed Friel and Muhlfeld, while late-forming groups like Common Sense in Whitefish Government endorsed candidates including Jenson, Askew and McGrew. Several other groups, including Sensible Land Use and the Commission for Fair Land Use attacked the incumbent mayor and city council, but refrained from endorsing any candidates in the election.

Despite the high profile mailing campaigns and billboards, the winners interviewed said they did not believe the special interest groups had a significant effect on the election’s outcome.

“It’s important to have all these groups because it’s an open process,” Friel said. “I don’t know if it had a huge effect – most Whitefish voters were just assessing what they heard and felt and saw in candidates.”

In Kalispell, incumbent council members Randy Kenyon and Duane Larson were re-elected. Both Kenyon and Larson, in recent interviews, have expressed a need for the Kalispell city council to reexamine how the city grows, and move away from approving large subdivisions at the outskirts of town. Instead, they have suggested, the council should focus on more modest development closer to the city.

In Columbia Falls, three council members ran unopposed: Donald Barnhart, Douglas Karper and Julie Plevel.