- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, Jan. 22, 2014

VA owes Save the VA an apology

Now that the Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to conduct an environmental impact study on closing its VA campus in Hot Springs, it’s time for an honest assessment of the VA’s behavior since it announced two years ago that it planned to move its health care services to Rapid City.

In a word, the VA’s treatment of Hot Springs has been shameful.

Shortly after the VA’s announcement in December 2011 to leave Hot Springs, Steve DiStasio, director of VA Black Hills Health Care System, said he welcomed a discussion of possible alternatives, and that other ideas may be incorporated into the VA’s final plan.

Hot Springs residents formed the Save the VA committee, which worked on a weekly basis for months to create an alternative use for the VA’s facility in Hot Springs. Their proposal was to use the century-old facility as a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment center and expand outpatient clinic services.

A few months later, DiStasio reversed course and said the VA’s plan was not negotiable.

Despite this, members of the Save the VA group flew to Washington, D.C., and presented their idea to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, where he said he had not made a decision on the VA’s reorganization plan for the Black Hills system.

That was almost one year ago, and the VA never answered the Save the VA’s request for consideration.

To recap: Without warning or any supporting evidence, the VA said it would close its Hot Springs facility for economic reasons; to cool the firestorm of opposition, the VA asked for alternative ideas; a group of Hot Springs residents spent countless hours studying possible alternative uses for the Battle Mountain Conservatory; the group presented its proposal in a good-faith response to the VA’s request; the VA said forget we asked; the VA secretary reluctantly listened to the Save the VA group’s plan after members traveled to Washington at their own expense; a year later, the VA has not even given them the courtesy of a response; and now the VA has announced it would develop an environmental impact study as legally required before doing what it said it would do two years ago.


The VA owes the Save the VA committee an apology for wasting its time, wasting its money and wasting its good will.


Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Jan. 18, 2014

Transparency might have averted beef plant debacle

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said last week that he is not withholding information in the ongoing probe into financial irregularities surrounding the bankrupt Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen.

We take him at his word on that. Daugaard has been forthcoming in his approach to the situation involving the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, a federal investment program and former state government staff members.

He said he has ordered three external reviews related to the beef plant project, and he promised to make those audits public. But the fact that our governor feels he has to make such assertions in the first place stems in part from our state’s secretive government climate. Secrecy breeds suspicion.

And as taxpayers wade through the complicated scenarios in this case, it’s easy to be suspicious.

Clearly some things went wrong in the push for investments in the Aberdeen beef plant. The former head of the economic development office died by suicide, and the trail of government and private investor money flowing into the project still is unraveling.

But as we await some resolution in state and federal inquiries on the case, it is intriguing to ask an underlying question - how could the questionable activities have been prevented? Would greater public access to government correspondence and documents have made a difference?

Knowledge that government correspondence and records were open to public scrutiny may have dissuaded any potential criminal activity from occurring. And journalists, with access to such information, could have kept closer tabs on the beef plant investment activities.

Would it have mattered? No one really knows. But the tangled web of financial investments and the relationships among public and private entities that now is unfolding seems to cry out for greater public scrutiny.

South Dakota lawmakers have resisted efforts to provide public access that would put us on the same level as other states. Just last year, remember, a package of recommended changes to the state’s public records and meetings laws - moves supported by the governor and attorney general - was defeated in the state Legislature. Most of the bills never made it out of committee. Some never received a yes vote.

Journalists push for greater access to public officials’ correspondence and records not because they’re hoping to find incriminating emails or conversations to dissect. The goal is to serve as a check on government and on public office holders; to analyze records on government spending and to determine the priorities of elected officials. All of those things should be of great interest to taxpayers as well.

No one knows whether greater government transparency would have made any difference in what transpired preceding the opening of the Northern Beef Packers plant. But what if it had?


The Daily Republic, Mitchell, Jan. 20, 2014

Legislators need to wake up and ban texting-and-driving

City councils - and by extension, the people of those cities - have been falling in line over the last year or two to ban the dangerous practice of texting-while-driving.

We’re glad to see that the councils in South Dakota’s largest cities are taking it upon themselves to see that drivers who text are not welcome on their streets.

That the state Legislature doesn’t recognize this queue is completely beyond us.

Members of the Legislature just don’t understand why it’s important that a statewide ban be put in place. Or, they just don’t believe it is a dangerous practice.

Either way, that’s bad for South Dakota.

We reported last week that a statewide poll shows that 85 to 95 percent of South Dakotans agree that texting while driving should be banned.

Armed with that information, state Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said he plans to again introduce a texting-while-driving ban during the 2014 session, which began last week. He said it’s a problem with the state’s culture, and compared this effort to similar efforts in the past to rid the roads of drunken drivers. We agree with him entirely.

Vehle isn’t new to this game - he’s felt this way for some time now. It’ll be interesting to see if his counterparts in the Legislature are starting to see the light.

This has come before the Legislature in the past, but the idea failed to gain traction, probably due to our state’s supposed belief in having certain freedoms even if those freedoms are dangerous to others.

And as state leaders have failed to see the dangers in texting and driving, South Dakota’s cities have decided to take their own action. Mitchell, for instance, last year joined numerous other cities in enacting a ban against texting while driving.

We wish Vehle luck in this year’s bid, but for some reason, we wonder if the rest of the Legislature will agree with him.

If other members do back Vehle’s plan, we’ll wonder what took them so long and what finally made them change their mind.

And if they don’t back Vehle, we’ll just be left to wonder what the heck they’re thinking.


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