Kalispell City Councilors Step Aside Amid Re-Election Questions

Following a district court order nullifying election results in Kalispell's city council election, two sitting councilors stepped down while official seek legal guidance

By Micah Drew
Kalispell City Council Chambers on March 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following a Flathead County judge’s order last week nullifying the results of two Kalispell municipal election wards, sitting city councilors Kari Gabriel and Sam Nunnally stepped down this week.

“Working on the latest ruling from the court, we think we have two vacancies on the council because of the election component,” Kalispell city manager Doug Russell said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “So we’ve asked councilors Nunnally and Gabriel to remove themselves from the dais just in case of a procedural issue with the courts and potentially putting votes in jeopardy.”

Russell told the Beacon city officials continue to seek legal counsel in what is an unprecedented situation in Montana following a nullified election.

“This is a new one for us,” he said. “We’re looking for some form of clarification from the court on whether they can continue to serve until the new election is held. Hopefully we hear something soon, because I think there’s a vested public interest in figuring this out.”

The Kalispell city council will continue conducting business as a seven-person administrative body.

The Feb. 16 order by Judge Robert Allison came in response to a petition filed by Flathead County Election Administrator Debbie Pierson requesting the annulment of November’s election for city councilors due to a clerical error that sent incorrect ballots to roughly 8% of the city’s voters. While Pierson requested all four Ward results be annulled and held again, incumbent city councilor Ryan Hunter filed as an intervenor in the suit requesting that just two of the races be considered.

In order to correct ward boundary errors that caused 8% of Kalispell voters to receive incorrect ballots during November’s election, the Flathead County Election Department must hold a new election for the Ward 1 and Ward 2 seats. According to county election manager Adrienne Chmelik, it will take a minimum of 85 days to administer a new election, pushing the redo into mid-May at the earliest. The timeline could be affected by upcoming school, special district and primary elections the department is tasked with carrying out as well.