By Zach Hagadone
Bonner County Elections officials reported a comparatively early night Nov. 5, posting preliminary results by 11:17 p.m. and turning off the lights by 11:30 p.m. — a significant improvement from years past, when counts could often continue into the wee hours.
“It went very well,” said Bonner County Elections Coordinator T.J. Eigler, crediting new equipment that helped streamline the count.
That said, it was a local election containing many moving parts. Not only were there countywide municipal contests — including no small amount of contention and controversy swirling around the Sandpoint mayoral and council races — but a permanent school levy and 1% local option sales tax in Ponderay on the ballot.
“Most people seemed interested in the city of Sandpoint,” Eigler said, citing turnout in some precincts rose as high as 71.6%.
Some races were nail-biters — with one ending in a tie — while others were characterized by robust social media activity that both propelled and, frequently, muddied discussion of the issues and personalities vying for voters’ approval at the ballot box.
In keeping with Eigler’s observation that the Sandpoint city races threw off a lot of heat, turnout was notably higher in this Sandpoint mayoral race than the previous one in 2015, with 2,503 ballots cast of 4,744 registered voters, amounting to 52.7% participation. By comparison, the 2015 election, which delivered incumbent Mayor Shelby Rognstad his first term, drew 1,747 ballots from 4,516 registered voters, or 38.6%. That said, Rognstad’s vote totals remained fairly consistent: pulling 1,116 votes in 2015 to 1,234 votes in this cycle — a difference of only 118 ballots.
That means Rognstad took the 2019 mayoral race with 49.3% of the vote, compared to 63.8% in 2015. The difference is likely attributable in part to votes being siphoned away by Sandpoint City Council President Shannon Williamson, but also the simple arithmetic that shows challenger Ken Lawrence outperformed both Rognstand’s chief competitor in 2015, Mose Dunkel, and Williamson in 2019.
Though city races are nonpartisan, Rognstad’s and Williamson’s campaigns were seen by many voters as similarly progressive, thus presenting the dilemma of a potentially split vote. On top of that, the mayoral contest between Rognstad and Williamson was uncharacteristically riven by acrimony, with both candidates throughout the race aiming barbs at one another via social media.
Williamson was at the center of an 11th-hour furor when the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper board of directors voted Oct. 30 to terminate her from her position as executive director of the nonprofit, citing a lack of communication over her decision to run and the impacts of her potential victory on the organization.
Williamson pushed back, claiming she was fired in retribution for running against Rognstad, whom she said the board supported for personal and political reasons.
“To say that I’m confused as to what recently transpired is the understatement of the century and makes me seriously question [the LPOW board’s] political motivations, especially since they authored a Board document where they express support for my main opponent,” she wrote in a social media post Nov. 1, referring to an Oct. 8 LPOW board agenda that included the discussion item “tacit support of opposing mayoral candidate.”
“It’s obvious that the Board supports Shelby,” Williamson wrote in a follow-up post Nov. 3.
Both the board and Rognstad dismissed that claim, telling the Reader in separate statements Nov. 4 that the 501(c)3 organization is legally prohibited from endorsing candidates. “[T]herefore, we have not supported Shelby or any other political candidate,” the board wrote. “The insinuation that the LPOW Board of Directors aligned itself with Shelby to terminate Shannon has no merit.”
Rognstad wrote: “Any individual board member is free to support whichever candidate they want. … I don’t know why any board member would have any reason not to support me.”
Though the tensions between Rognstad and Williamson’s campaigns ran deep — including claims and counterclaims of lack of communication leading up to their declarations of candidacy — Rognstad also faced stiffer than perhaps expected competition from the conservative bloc of Sandpoint voters, who turned out in greater numbers than years past to deliver more votes for their candidate in precincts where progressive-style candidates typically enjoy wider margins.
Overall, Lawrence pulled 771 votes — 153 more than Dunkel in 2015 and 273 more than Williamson in this contest, accounting for 30.8% of registered voters. Williamson, meanwhile, drew 498 votes, or 19.8% of the total. Not only did Lawrence, a 78-year-old retired pastor and self-described “conservative Christian,” win the Airport precinct, as Dunkel did in 2015, he came within striking distance of the incumbent in two others.
Lawrence won the Airport precinct with 126 of ballots cast, or 51%, besting Rognstad by 44 votes. That echoed 2015, when Dunkel won the traditionally conservative-leaning precinct with 73 votes to Rognstad’s 52.
Things were more unusual in the Baldy precinct, where Rognstad and Lawrence were practically even: the former won with 155 of 395 ballots cast, or 39.2%, while the latter pulled 151, or 38.2% — a difference of only four votes. By comparison, the breakdown in 2015 was much starker: 164 votes for Rognstad compared to 97 for Dunkel.
Rognstad took the Humbird precinct with 263 of 534 ballots cast, or 49.2%. Lawrence again had a strong showing, with 174 votes, or 32.5%. Those were also narrower margins than in 2015, when Rogsntad took the precinct with 58.8% of the total.
As in 2015, Rognstad took the Beach precinct handily, with 315 of 544 ballots cast, or 57.9%. Lawrence and Williamson ended up neck-and-neck, with 129 to 100, respectively. That said, this was a much less secure victory for Rognstad than in 2015, when he took 71.6% of the precinct vote.
Finally, in the Washington precinct, Rognstad had the clear victory with 419 of 784 ballots cast, or 53.4%, while Lawrence and Williamson again trailed with similar vote totals: 191 to 174. By comparison, the south Sandpoint precinct delivered Rognstad a 67.7% victory in 2015.
Williamson failed to win a plurality in any of the five city of Sandpoint precincts and underperformed in both the Beach and Washington districts, which delivered the majority of her reelection votes in 2017. Williamson was down 118 votes from her 2017 total in the Beach precinct and down 76 votes from 2017 in the Washington precinct.
Rognstad supporters had feared a Williamson candidacy would deliver a split-vote victory to Lawrence, but the precinct totals illustrate perhaps an overestimation of support for the former and an underestimation of the latter.
Regardless of the outcome, Williamson still has another two years left in her term on the City Council, and sounded a conciliatory note to Rognstad following his Nov. 5 election victory.
“Congratulations on your victory Shelby! I look forward to working with you, the rest of the council and our amazing staff over the next two years in a collaborative and productive way to achieve great outcomes for the city together starting tonight at our council meeting,” Williamson wrote in a Nov. 6 social media post. “Let’s get to work on behalf of our residents, business owners and visitors.”
Lawrence meanwhile struck a more belligerent tone with his post-election message, thanking his supporters, whose “effort was a blessing to see!” and issuing a rallying cry: “We lost a battle, but let’s redouble our resolve to make sure we win the war against the poison of godlessness and liberalism!”
Rognstad gathered with supporters at Eichardt’s Pub ahead of the preliminary results on election night to thank his campaign and ground team for their work and financial contributions, saying that “we absolutely dominated this race” with door knocking, letters to the editor, calls and texts.
He also noted the ferocity of the social media commentary surrounding the contest: “I know how much courage this campaign took, it was ugly, it was dirty, it was nasty … even for North Idaho I think it went above and beyond what we have seen in the past.”
Rognstad closed his remarks by expressing his excitement to continue work on the city’s ongoing master planning efforts, saying, “We’re going to accomplish some big work in four years. … Let’s keep it going.”
By comparison, the Sandpoint City Council races were more subdued. Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kate McAlister came away the biggest winner, with 1,644 votes. She was joined in victory by incumbent Councilwoman Deb Ruehle, who garnered 1,418 votes and newcomer Andy Groat, who took the third open council seat with 1,257 votes.
Challengers Shannon Mitchell and Jacque Guinan trailed with 960 and 801 votes, respectively, but totals for all five candidates reflected a higher turnout than the 2017 council contest. While that race drew 2,692 votes, the 2019 council race saw 6,080 ballots cast.
The biggest furor among council candidates centered on Guinan, whose Sandpoint residency was called into question in early October when a constituent filed a complaint with the city clerk alleging inconsistencies between her Sandpoint and Ponderay addresses that suggested she was ineligible to run for Sandpoint office.
After a thorough investigation by Sandpoint police, who took on the case after it was forwarded by the clerk, Guinan’s status as a Sandpoint resident since 2018 was established, but not before a separate allegation surfaced that she had voted improperly with a Ponderay address in the 2018 election. That assertion was dismissed by local officials, including Bonner County Elections staff and Ponderay Mayor Steve Geiger, though both claims generated a fair amount of discussion on social media, which Guinan told the Reader in a pre-election email amounted to “a slew of additional false and very public accusations against me which are 100% unfounded.”
The winners of the Nov. 5 council races kept their statements thanking supporters short and sweet, with McAlister writing, “THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. I am overwhelmed by your votes and belief in me. I cannot thank you enough. I promise to always do my best for all of us. But I need your help as well. I will reach out through my Kate for Sandpoint Facebook to keep you all apprised of what is happening and when I need your involvement. This is OUR community and together we will be even stronger. I am honored to serve you. Here we go!”
On her campaign Facebook page, Ruehle wrote, “THANKS TO ALL MY SUPPORTERS AND FRIENDS! I look forward to serving all that live in Sandpoint.”
Groat, a well-known UPS driver whose campaign featured the catchy slogan “Vote for Groat,” was typified by the candidate’s affability and enthusiasm for learning the ropes of city government. His statement, posted Nov. 6 on Facebook, simply read: “It’s a good day to be a BULLDOG!!”
The other big result of the night turned on voters’ approval of a ballot measure making permanent the $12.7 million Lake Pend Oreille School District No. 84 supplemental levy. A total of 4,256 residents cast ballots in favor of the permanent levy, while 4,034 were against — a margin of only 222 votes in a contest that drew 8,290 ballots, or 41.7% of registered voters.
With ballots cast 51.3% in favor and 48.6% against, the vote to continue the levy on a permanent basis was tighter than in March 2019, when the supplemental levy passed with 56.2% in favor and 43.8% against in a contest that drew 30.9% of registered voters.
As has become typical, the “yes” votes were drawn primarily from the higher-density precincts in the immediate vicinity of Sandpoint, combined with the Airport-, Baldy- and Dover-Unincorporated precincts west of town and the Hope-Unincorporated precinct to the east. The Beach-City of Ponderay, Kootenai-Unincorporated and Selle-LPO 84-4 precincts all went for the levy, but the margins grew narrower as the vote extended north into more rural areas.
No precinct south of the Long Bridge voted in favor of the permanent levy, nor did any from Clark Fork to the southern end of the lake. Both Oden precincts, Selle-Unincorporated, Grouse Creek and Colburn all rejected the measure as well. Voters in Wrenco, both Sandpoint and Ponderay Airport precincts, and Kootenai joined in voting “no.”
Considering the narrowness of the preliminary result, the fate of the permanent levy measure was uncertain for a fair portion of election night. While early returns had the measure ahead by 41 votes, that number flipped 180 degrees with almost half the precincts reporting. The margins again reversed and started to widen around 10:30 p.m., resulting in the final preliminary count at 11:17 p.m.
In a statement Nov. 6, LPOSD No. 84 Superintendent Tom Albertson thanked voters “for stabilizing educational funding for the future.”
“Through trust, a common vision and a collaborative effort we can continue providing opportunities for students, guiding them to be prepared for the future,” he wrote. “I look forward to leading this work.”
Other notable results included voters’ approval 109 to 72 of Ponderay’s 1% local option sales tax, with revenue generated over five years intended to support the Field of Dreams sports complex on McGhee Road and lake access via a railroad underpass connecting the city of Ponderay to the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail.
While incumbent Ponderay Mayor Steve Geiger comfortably retained his seat against challenger Tara Tribbett, 137 to 35 — Tribbett also lost her contest for LPOSD Trustee Zone 4 to incumbent Geraldine Lewis by an even wider margin of 1,088 to 339 — the Ponderay City Council race included a tie. While Brenda Thompson scored the most votes with 102, Brad Mitton and Gary Kunzeman, competing for one of two open seats, each drew 83 votes. According to Idaho law, a tie in such cases is resolved by the city clerk, who gives official notice of the draw to the candidates. They then must appear at a city council meeting within six days of the notice, at which time the clerk flips a coin to determine the winner.
All 2019 election results remain preliminary until official canvassing, which Bonner County Elections staff said is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 9 a.m.
To view all Bonner County election results for Nov. 5, 2019, visit bonnercountyid.gov/departments/Elections.
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