A local woman is suing the Bonneville County Republican Women, saying the group broke its bylaws during its last elections to make sure candidates the leadership preferred won.
The suit, which was filed in December by Diane Jensen, is against the local club, the state and national ones and the women who were in the local group's leadership in October and November 2018, when the disputed election took place.
Jensen joined the Republican Women around the time of their October meeting, according to the complaint, calling a few days earlier and getting a membership form the same day as the meeting. At that meeting, the group's nominating committee proposed a slate of officers for 2019. An opposing slate, including Jensen for president, was nominated from the floor.
At the November meeting, the complaint says, people who had paid their dues after Oct. 17 were told they couldn't vote since their memberships didn't kick in until 2019. The complaint goes into some detail describing the meeting, listing ways the group allegedly tried to shut down supporters of the opposing slate. Sharon Smith, who was part of the slate that included Jensen, was elected first vice president, according to the meeting's minutes. The nominating committee's candidates won all the other positions; Lisa Burtenshaw, not Jensen, was elected president.
“They kind of manipulated their bylaws and worked outside of their bylaws in order to elect officers that they handpicked, and what they did in the process was disenfranchise a lot of registered Republican women who had paid their dues and had come to a meeting expecting to participate in that meeting and participate in an election,” Jensen said. “And they were prevented from doing so.”
The suit asks the results of the leadership election be overturned and a new one held.
Stephanie Mickelsen, who was the group’s president last year and is one of the defendants, said she didn’t want to comment on the specifics until she talked to a lawyer. As of Thursday, she said, she and the other defendants hadn’t been served; they found out the suit had been filed after receiving calls from reporters.
However, she said the Bonneville County Republican Women followed its rules, and the suit and a news release sent to reporters with the complaint contained "a bunch of inaccuracies."
“We did follow our bylaws,” she said. “We worked closely with the state (Idaho Federation of Republican Women). We had them review our bylaws and procedures (and) had them make sure we were correct.”
One element of the dispute involves when the memberships of the women who tried to join last fall started. The Bonneville County Republican Women's bylaws say dues paid by new members after Sept. 1 are applied to the following year, which could be interpreted as meaning people who had joined later weren't voting members at the time of the leadership election. According to the meeting minutes, the Republican Women extended the deadline to pay dues and be considered a member in good standing to Oct. 17, but women who joined after that weren't allowed to vote. However, Jensen is pointing to the National Federation of Republican Women membership guide, which says women who join a club in November and pay for a year get a "14 for 12" deal, or 14 months of membership.
"A reasonable person would think that once you pay your dues, you're a member," Jensen said. "This is one of the ways they tried to manipulate the election."
Some women who weren't at the meeting were allowed to vote electronically by absentee ballot, which is allowed according to the election rules attached to the minutes of the meeting but which, the suit says, shouldn't be since it is against the rules of the state organization.
According to the meeting minutes, 16 women attended who had been members earlier, and 10 who had joined between Sept. 1 and Oct. 17, including Jensen and Burtenshaw. Twenty-four other people attended the meeting, many of them women who had tried to join after Oct. 17. Ten women voted absentee, seven of them longer-standing members and three who joined between Sept. 1 and Oct. 17.
The suit also alleges the group broke the bylaws of the state and national clubs by allowing Miranda Marquit, the chairwoman of the Bonneville County Democrats, to become a member. Jensen doesn't think it's right the Democrats’ chairwoman was allowed to vote but 15 Republican women who attended the meeting weren’t.
“There were a lot of women who were disenfranchised by an organization whose goals include supporting women (and) getting more women involved in the political process, and here they were preventing women from doing that,” Jensen said.
Marquit sees her membership as a way to further discussion, find things Democrats and Republicans agree on and plan joint community events.
“Nothing in the bylaws says you have to be Republican to join,” Marquit said. “Also, several of the current Republican women who are in there are friends of mine and they invited me to join, knowing full well I was a Democrat.”
Marquit said she shares values and interests with many of the Bonneville County Republican Women. She pointed to the debate over the creation of the College of Eastern Idaho, which was supported both by the Democrats and the Republican Women as an example of common ground.
“I personally think we need to have more dialogue in our community, and we need to have more conversations in our community and be exposed to people we might not always agree with,” Marquit said.
Marquit stressed she isn’t part of the leadership and doesn’t try to direct what the group does. And her one vote that night, she said, didn't affect the results.
“I’m just there because I think it’s important to have this engagement,” she said.
Mickelsen called the suit frivolous and “highly unfortunate, and it’s very sad because it’ll drive people away from serving.” She said the group's membership and participation had been growing under her leadership, not shrinking as the release said.
“We’re a vibrant club that seeks to educate and inform members of our community about the issues related to government and happenings in our community,” Mickelsen said.
So why is any of this a legal issue? According to Randy Neal, Jensen’s lawyer, an organization's bylaws are an “implied contract.”
“It’s just a basic breach of contract issue, because the person has paid money and they expect whatever they’re doing to fall within those rules that the group has set forth,” he said.
Also part of the dispute is the power struggle between the "establishment" and further-right factions of the local Republican Party. The more right-wing faction controls the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee, but the center-right one is dominant in the Bonneville County Republican Women. Neal has been politically active himself; he unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, from the right in last year's primary.
"It boils down to, you have a couple of political operatives ... that have been in conflict with the local Republican leadership now for years," Neal said. "They're trying to maintain control of this group and they'll do anything to keep that control."
A court date hasn't been set.