- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

Capital Journal, Pierre, May 3

Fort Pierre taxpayers wronged in secret settlement

The Fort Pierre City Council should not have entered into a secret settlement agreement.

On Monday, in a five-to-one vote, the council agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Perkins’ owner Diane London in 2015. Exactly how much the City of Fort Pierre’s citizens could be on the hook for is completely unknown. The city council, as part of the settlement, agreed to keep its details secret.

How can a public entity agree to shell out taxpayers’ dollars without telling the very people from whom that money was collected how much of their blood, sweat and tears - because we cannot forget that that is what tax dollars represent - are being used to end a lawsuit originally brought because city leaders may or may not have followed the city’s own rules regarding the development of the Teton Island district?

The answer is actually pretty simple. South Dakota’s laws are, at best, abysmal when it comes to telling people what their own governments are doing. South Dakota continually ranks in the bottom five of the 50 states when it comes to openness in government. To be clear, South Dakota is not an open-government state.

That fact is surprising given the majority of our political leaders’ repeated calls for a more limited government and their stated commitment to spending the smallest amount of taxpayer dollars possible. The people of this state, too, by and large, tend to believe in a limited, spend-thrift government.

One would be forgiven for assuming that a commitment to limited-government principles would extend to such things as not spending taxpayer dollars without telling the taxpayers how much is being spent. In South Dakota, at least, it doesn’t. There have been many attempts to fix loopholes in state law that allow city governments to conceal information such as how much they have to shell out for legal settlements. All of them have failed.

That brings us back to the situation in Fort Pierre. Rob Anderson, the lawyer to whom Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson said all questions about the settlement should be directed, told a Capital Journal reporter on Tuesday that he cannot even say whether the city had to pay anything at all or if there’s an insurance policy that would help defray costs, if there were any.

Confidential settlements on behalf of government entities aren’t unique to South Dakota. Local and state governments all over the country have tried repeatedly to conceal details of legal settlements from their citizens. Sometimes, it’s done to protect juvenile victims of wrongdoing, and that’s understandable.

But other times, it’s done to prevent the embarrassment of public officials or to protect the person who filed the lawsuit and has received taxpayer dollars as a result of the settlement. Neither of those situations are acceptable reasons to keep information, especially financial information, from taxpayers.

Out of court settlements serve a good purpose. They can cut the costs of litigation, saving everyone some money in the process. For private businesses, that’s a great thing. But when it comes to government, which by definition deals in public monies, secret settlements should be the exception, not the rule.

The state should have clear laws forbidding secret legal settlements for all levels of government. There should be few exceptions to the prohibition of secrecy and every elected, appointed or hired official should know the consequences for circumventing those rules.

South Dakota has none of that right now. What we do have is vague statutory language surrounding contracts and legal settlements as they apply to governments. The Supreme Court even now is deciding whether some of the state laws permitting secret settlements apply to city governments when they’re the ones receiving money from such an agreement.

The Fort Pierre City Council may not have violated a state law by entering into a secret settlement agreement. They may have been acting in good faith when they did so, hoping to save a little taxpayer money by ending a costly lawsuit early. But the councilors owe their constituents more than that.

The council owes the people of Fort Pierre good government, and good government can’t be conducted in secret. The council also owes their constituents the chance for a full accounting of what may or may not have gone wrong at the Teton Island development. That can’t be done now because some of the details are being kept secret.

While a secret settlement may be legal for governments to enter into right, they are almost never the right thing to do. Every citizen of Fort Pierre should demand that the city council make its portion of this settlement public.

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Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, April 30

Forest Service takes path to success

What started out with the equivalent of drawing a red line across certain trails has led to a process that is creating a true partnership in the Black Hills National Forest.

It was about a year ago when the Mystic District ranger threatened to prosecute anyone who built or maintained an unauthorized trail in her Black Hills territory.

The dispute intensified in February when Ranger Ruth Esperance denied permits for several mountain-biking and trail-running races in the area, again citing her desire to stamp out the use of unauthorized trails. In denying the permits, she also said the races would interfere with ongoing timber operations.

One of the races, the Black Hills Back 40, was a fundraiser for local organizations, including the Cornerstone Rescue Mission and Pennington County Search and Rescue, which led to even more concerns in the community.

But last week the threats and denials became things of the past as the Forest Service approved the permits for the races that attract visitors and local residents while showcasing the public property known as the Black Hills National Forest.

The announcement was made at a Black Hills Forest Advisory Board meeting by Supervisor Mark Van Emery, who assumed his position in August as our top Forest Service official.

While it has been a bumpy ride to this point, the initial tough stance has served as a catalyst for a new relationship between trail users, others who use the forest and the Forest Service itself. It also has resulted in the creation of the Non-Motorized Trails Working Group that has been appointed to study approved and non-approved trails, plan for the future and develop an evaluation process for new trail ideas.

In addition to the creation of this group and its unified purpose, representatives of the timber industry cooperated with the Forest Service and race organizers to enable this summer’s races to happen.

The Mystic Ranger District still has to approve the permit for the Black Hills Back 40, which over the past five years has raised around $75,000 for local nonprofits, but the race director says he is “99 percent sure” the July 29 race will happen as discussions continue on the best route for the competition.

In too many instances and especially when politicians and special interest groups are involved, cooperation, compromise and a search for common ground are dismissed as capitulation or even a sign of weakness.

In reality, however, it is the route we should all choose to take when we sit down at the table and try to resolve our differences.

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The Daily Republic, Mitchell, May 3

Local board acted valiantly, but tough questions remain

A special site to see was on full display at the Davison County North Offices on Tuesday night.

Without any vitriol or nastiness as seen in recent politically-charged discussions nationwide, Davison County residents and county Planning Commission members calmly discussed a 1,000-foot wind tower setback, and commissioners took their neighbors’ views to heart.

A proposal to recommend a 1,000-foot setback was tabled on Tuesday, allowing the Planning Commission to gather facts about wind energy systems before making its final call. It was a wonderful display of direct democracy from the 25 or so residents in attendance, and we commend the Planning Commission for listening to the views of the public.

Now comes the hard part.

As Planning and Zoning Administrator Jeff Bathke has long noted, the proposed 1,000-foot setback would establish a greater setback than currently set by state law - which calls for a setback of 500 feet or 1.1 times the height of a tower. Credit is first and foremost due to Bathke and Planning and Zoning Deputy Administrator Mark Jenniges for the hours they put in to find a starting point for the Planning Commission to work off.

But the final answer probably isn’t a 1,000-foot setback, nor is it a one-mile setback.

Planning Commissioner Lewis Bainbridge brought up an interesting thought on Tuesday night, saying “I don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot for some future thing that may come along.”

What if wind power - a renewable energy source - becomes more efficient and profitable? Davison County would find itself on the outside looking in.

And what about Mitchell Technical Institute’s wind turbine technology students? A new system in the area could create learning opportunities and a handful or jobs in the area for graduates.

Perhaps more important than those questions is what would happen if a wind energy system were proposed in Davison County tomorrow. The county would have little on the books to argue against a project.

We’re glad the Planning Commission put the recommendation on hold, especially considering the public opposition to wind towers lining the Davison County prairie, but we also don’t want to see revenue streams for farmland owners disappear at a time when crop prices are dropping and input costs are rising.

We have faith the commission will make the right choice, but we’re hoping it will be the right choice for both wind energy opponents and supporters.

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