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The political tides are changing in Baxter County.
Members of the Ozark Patriots claimed victory after successfully voting out establishment Republicans during Thursday’s Baxter County Republican Committee (BCRC) meeting. The meeting was held at the Miser Lodge in downtown Cotter.
The Patriots, a self-proclaimed political action group that emerged in Baxter County following the chaos of 2020, officially landed the top position in BCRC after Chris Chamberlain defeated incumbent Rick Peglar to become committee chairman. Chamberlain defeated Peglar 66-22.
Chamberlain will be joined by Mary Ellen Anderson and Tony Chamberlain as vice chairman and second vice chairman. Sid Williams will serve as treasurer and Joe Bryant will serve as secretary for the committee.
The group also held elections to remove both incumbent Baxter County Election Commissioners Gary Smith and Judy Garner from their positions as well. Bill Anders, who competed against Smith for his seat, won with a resounding 71 votes to Smith’s 17. Lynne Marlow Weaver followed up by defeating Garner, 63-25.
“I do want us to come together as a party and do some super cool things,” said Chris Chamberlain, after formally taking his position as chairman of BCRC. “We’re on the cusp of really being able to promote Republican, conservative values. Not just in Baxter County, but in the first district and it’s going to take everyone to do it. There are rumors that people might quit if this didn’t go their way, and I would urge everybody that wants to be a part of this Republican party to stay and be a part of it.”
Members of the BCRC and Baxter County Election Commission have come under public scrutiny following the conclusion of a state investigation of the Republican members of Baxter County’s Election Commission.
That investigation was started after a complaint was filed by the Mountain Home Observer in May of last year, after it discovered that Baxter County Election Commissioners Gary Smith and Judy Garner had opened a ballot in secret alongside former Baxter County Republican Committee Chairman Rick Peglar.
The results of that ballot were then communicated to Baxter County JP Shannon Walker, who was waiting to learn if she would be going into a runoff election against Vincent Anderson or Sheila Wingard.
The complaint, which was filed by the Observer after exposing the secret ballot meeting, was signed under penalty of perjury.
When confronted about the meeting, Commissioner Garner, who servers as BCEC’s Chairman, admitted to opening the ballot alongside the others, before telling the Observer to send further questions to the commission’s lawyer.
In response to the investigation, the State Board of Election Commissioners issued letters of warning to Garner and Smith, despite the evidence they broke Arkansas election law. Bob Bodenhamer, the sole Democrat member of the commission, was not a part of the secret ballot canvassing and was dismissed from the investigation by the SBEC. The state board also heavily dismissed other portions of the complaint, citing that those involved “had good intentions” and would not participate in the behavior again.
No other media outlet reported on the scandal at the time, nor did other outlets cover the result of the investigation until it appeared that all three members would be potentially voted out of their positions inside the BCRC.
All three members of the BCRC who were involved in looking at a ballot in secret lost their positions during Thursday night’s vote.
“This letter is to inform you that your complaint filed on June 8, 2022, has been resolved, pursuant to AC.A. § 7-4-120, by issuing Letters of Warning to Chairman Judy Garner and Commissioner Gary Smith of the Baxter County Election Commission, as well as dismissing Commissioner Bob Bodenhamer. These warning letters find that Chairman Garner and Commissioner Smith violated civil election law regarding the canvassing of an absentee ballot at a time and location not reflected in the notice of election and, therefore, not allowing the canvass to be open to the public.”
The Ozark Patriots are one of the more controversial political groups in Baxter County.
The organization and those that associate with it, have made a name for themselves by showing up to political and government functions. The group was strongly opposed to the Mountain Home Public School District’s attempt to raise its millage rates last year to build a new high school, and members of the group are set to oppose the districts second attempt this year.
Leaders within the group state that they are not opposed to fixing the issues surrounding the district’s high school but disagree with the current $60 million plan to rebuild portions of the school.
Last year, the group put forth several candidates for public office, with a couple winning seats long held by establishment Republican types.
The group’s track record is not without its problems though. While most of its members are good hearted people, their passion and lack of decorum at official government meetings makes them come off as rude interlopers to some officials and members of the public.
And the truth in those statements can be seen in action multiple times a month. Members are not afraid to interrupt meetings, ask questions and push back when they don’t agree on what’s happening with government spending.
Still, despite their flaws, the group has also done some good in the county by bringing attention to under reported stories. The group put its own spotlight on the lawsuit against Baxter county’s sheriff by a former jailer who alleges that she was wrongly terminated after complaining about being harassed and sexual assaulted by one of her superiors. The Patriots also put a spotlight on several election issues that sprang up last year, including the viewing the race-deciding ballot in secret.
Most of those issues were ignored for the most part by local media outlets. The group is expected to push for paper ballots in Baxter County during next year’s presidential election. They will need the Baxter County Quorum Court to sign off on that change if they attempt it.
The Patriot-led BCRC will be hosting a regular meeting on Feb. 28. The location of that meeting was not announced during Thursday night’s voting session.