BEND, Ore. – Residents of a remote county in Eastern Oregon where an armed group seized a federal wildlife refuge voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to keep in office a top local official who had denied the occupiers access to a county building.
“I feel so good about the outcome,” Harney County Judge Steve Grasty told the Associated Press over the phone from the county courthouse in Burns. “The voters have spoken. What’s important is to move ahead, see where is the common ground … People won’t always agree but we can find what we can work on together.”
Grasty had faced the special recall election because he refused to let the activists, who said they were protesting federal land-use policies, use a county building to host a meeting. Supporters of the recall say Grasty violated rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.
According to unofficial final results, 2,038 residents, or 70 percent of votes cast, opposed recalling Grasty; 861 residents, representing 30 percent of ballots, voted to remove him.
“Looks like a strong statement was made,” Harney County Clerk Derrin E. “Dag” Robinson said.
The first recall effort in this high-desert county in 21 years underscored divisions that remain more than four months after the 41-day occupation ended Feb. 11.
The group took over the refuge in opposition to federal government overreach in the West, where a lot of land is managed by the federal government.
“I certainly hope, after tonight, we can work as a community to heal, let the past go, and move forward in a positive way,” Robinson said.
Most signs in a nearby town and on ranch fence posts were for Grasty, who, even though he prevailed in the recall effort, retires in December.
“I’m going to save packing up until the end of the year,” Grasty told AP. He had earlier said that if he lost the recall, he’d put his belongings in a box and leave right away.
He had told the AP in a recent interview that he viewed this special election as a referendum on how he and other county officials handled the takeover of the 188,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
More than two dozen occupiers were arrested amid the takeover, and one was shot dead at a roadblock confrontation with law enforcement. Several have pleaded guilty to conspiracy in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of firearms possession in a federal facility. Most of the remaining defendants, including leader Ammon Bundy, are scheduled to go to trial Sept. 7.
The headquarters of the refuge, 30 miles south of Burns, is still closed, though refuge roads are open. Refuge manager Chad Karges said he expects the headquarters to reopen in late summer or early fall.
The county’s last recall election, in June 1995 against another county judge and a county commissioner, resoundingly failed, Robinson noted. The recall petition had complained, among other things, that the judge had “purchased luxury automobiles with the taxes of people struggling to survive.”
“They were Fords, Crown Victorias,” Robinson, who that year worked for the county clerk’s office as an intern, remembered with a laugh. “They were not luxury cars.”
The issues this time are rooted in something more serious – seizure of federal property by occupiers from out of state, plus the deadly confrontation. Their presence, and that of hundreds of law enforcement officers, put county residents on edge.
Grasty said he stands by his decision to deny Bundy and his group use of a county building.
“He had already taken over, with firearms, a whole compound of buildings. And (the request) didn’t make sense to me, nor did it fit public policy about public safety,” Grasty said.
Robinson said Harney County recently got a scanning machine for examining ballots and tallying election results; this election was the second time the county has used it.
He said he had posted on his own Facebook page to try to boost voter participation. The county lacks a radio station and has only a weekly newspaper.
Voter participation in the Tuesday recall vote was 64 percent.
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