Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Does Sunshine Week Shine Bright in Sioux Falls?

 Below are editorials and some memorable comments by city councilors regarding the open meeting reprimand handed down by the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission last week. You be the judge on whether openness in government shines bright in Sioux Falls. Did Sioux Falls' city government light shine a little dimmer in the state last week?

Published March 15, 2012, 08:04 AM

OUR VIEW: Good for Sioux Falls' Brown at keeping true to his work

Vernon Brown deserves a medal and here’s why: Brown is upset that the Sioux Falls City Council — of which he is a longtime member — has been given a reprimand by the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission.

The commission recently ruled that the council was too vague in its motion to fire former city clerk Debra Owen, who was let go by the panel in a controversial move last year.

Brown, in the council’s most recent meeting, said he is pained to have this censure fall upon the board and blamed David Pfeifle, the Sioux Falls city attorney, for providing bad legal advice.

Brown did this in open session, and Pfeifle took offense, sparking a feud between the attorney, Brown and at least one other member of the panel.

It’s a dramatic issue, no doubt, but we can’t help but appreciate Brown’s stance.

First, we remind readers that it’s Sunshine Week, a five-day span set aside by many newspapers in America to promote government openness. Brown’s timing certainly is fitting.

It seems that many boards do not take great offense when they are reprimanded by the Open Meetings Commission, a panel that hears public complaints about possible violations of procedure by elected boards.

That Brown is so offended shows he cares, and it shows that he truly wants to conduct the people’s business appropriately.

We don’t care that his scolding of the city attorney caused offense. If the attorney’s advice was bad and caused embarrassment to the board, so be it. The attorney works for the people; so does the City Council, for that matter.

And further, Brown maintains that his role on the board does not trump his First Amendment rights to state his true feelings about this issue.

Hear, hear.

Good job, Vernon

Number 11
March 14, 2012

And the "Black Hole" Award goes to...   

Since this is Sunshine Week, a national observance about the importance of openness and transparency in government, I think it is a good time to give what I call the "Black Hole" Award. Webster's in part defines a black hole as a space that light cannot escape. Certainly true          in the case of the Sioux Falls City Council, which last week was reprimanded by the Open Meetings Commission for violating state law. The complaint that went to the open meetings panel was initiated by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Last year in a special meeting executive session the Sioux Falls City Council decided to fire the city clerk. The problem: the official action related to the decision to fire the clerk was never conveyed to the public in the official minutes of the Sept. 14 special meeting.

Rather, Sioux Falls councilors decided, apparently based on advice from their attorney, to approve this motion following the executive session: "to authorize Councilors Erpenbach, Anderson Jr., and Entenman to take the personnel action that was discussed in Executive Session."


The city attorney said the council needed to be non-specific in its motion in order to "protect" city clerk Debra Owen and afford her the same rights as if she was a private employee.

Yea, right. Benevolent-sounding, but it appears to be more about city councilors wanting to protect themselves rather than Debra Owen.

At any rate, the open meetings commission was right to reprimand the council, and the subsequent media attention has helped put some bite in the reprimand.

The Sioux Falls mayor has since said the open meetings laws are "confusing." The Sioux Falls city attorney has said the reprimand is no big deal and he would welcome the opportunity to work with legislators to "clarify" the open meetings law.

Really? Confusing? Clarification needed?

South Dakota's open meetings laws are pretty clear cut when it comes to taking any official action related to executive session discussions. Public boards in South Dakota generally have operated well under those provisions of the law for 25 years. The law allows public boards to keep discussions and rationales regarding personnel actions in secret. The law is clear that any official action regarding those discussions must be made in public. It also must be clear exactly what those official actions are.                                

Why Sioux Falls city officials suddenly find it confusing is rather amusing. And                                 sad.

Nevertheless, the 2012 Sunshine Week "Black Hole" Award is no laughing matter. It's a serious reminder that open government in South Dakota is always a work in progress.


"We were wrong. We ought to be contrite."

"...yes, I am embarrassed and yes, I apologize to the citizens of Sioux Falls but we did what we thought was right and I will stand on that vote because we did what was right even though the way that it turned out in terms of the open meeting didn't work out the way we thought it should. We did the right thing."

"Here again, I am not taking this lightly. Any decision we make affects people. It affects staff, it affects the citizens of Sioux Falls and we don't take it lightly, but we do the best , the very best that we can and I believe we did well here."

"I had the privilege of attending that meeting and I guess when they said we violated the law, I am not going to second guess them and you watch the meeting September 14th and read the minutes of the meeting it's about as vague as you can get. I know we were dancing, we were dancing to keep Debra out of the limelight on this whole issue but we practiced some bad form in removing one of our appointed people......It's bad form on our part first but I'd like to know in fact if we have officially ever removed her."

"I will answer that. She stood on the Carnegie steps and announced to the media she had been fired and she's been collecting unemployment for 6 months so I think that's pretty official."

"The ripple effect of this change is enormous."

"We've crossed that center line of the public's right to know and from the person's privacy and that disturbs me quite a bit because we try to be nice a little bit around here and hold that person's ability to and our ability to do some things the right way to do and they forced our hand on this and I don't know if that's the right way to do it or not."

"This is the first time we ever removed an appointed personnel from the city council staff and I think we definitely need to make sure that in the future if this ever happens or has to to occur again that we don't end up with the same result."

"I guess I'll echo those sentiments."


  1. Mayor Huether: "Thanks, guys...it's really nice to know at least 5 of you will bend over and do my bidding no matter how illegal it is or how incompetant it makes you look. It's also part of this "business acumen" thingy I've been preaching about so much lately. You see, when you can hire two people to do the same job as one it helps the economy by increasing our payroll while providing excess discetionary income these new employees can spend at my, uh..I mean the new Events Center."

  2. The great Mayor Mike and some of the city council found the law confusing? The City Attorney gave his best advice? Can any of these great minds tell me why the open meetings commission found 4-1 against their position. They did not seem confused. My guess is they have a lot more regard for right vs. wrong. I hope that all people as outraged as I am about this ruling will remember and vote the idiots out of office at the first chance. Some of them will be held to account for their actions in less than a month. We had a recall for a Mayor over 50 years ago. Perhaps the time is right to do it again.

  3. Does openness in government shine bright in Sioux Falls?

    NOT recently................!!!

    Most Sioux Falls residents are now aware of the reprimand that the City Council has rec'd from the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission.

    The quotes that Jennifer has provided from the March 12th Informational meeting make it apparent who actually supports transparency and open government and who doesn't.

    This is the kind of information that citizens need to consider when they cast their vote for Council members (2012/2014) and the Mayor (2014).

    Yet another example of the lack of openness on the Council occurred Monday night (March 19th) at the 7:00 Council meeting.

    The Council has been considering moving their meetings from Mondays to Tuesdays. This decision had been deferred to May 7th to allow potentially as many as four new Councilors to have a vote on the schedule.

    Now, suddenly, Councilor Michelle Erpenbach wants the vote to take place April 2nd, just eight days before the election!!

    Oh, and BTW, she did not even bother to inform the other councilors that she was going to bring this up at Monday's meeting, in spite of the fact that they had just held a work session four days earlier.

    Her reason for the request regards contract approvals. The Council has been approving contracts for months and to-date there have been no issues with timeliness!!! So, WHY is she making this request??!!

    Councilor Kenny Anderson Jr. objected. His objections were based on the fact that the Council has not discussed the change with the Minnehaha County Commission who currently hold a joint meeting with the City Council one Monday a month. He also stated that the April 2nd vote would not allow any new Council members to participate in the decision. The vote was 6 to 1 to place it on the April 2nd agenda.

    I hope that the Council comes to their senses and votes to once again delay this until the new members are brought on board.


    Sue Aguilar is currently Chair of the Council with Erpenbach as Vice-Chair.

    These are the two councilors that invited the Mayor into the "Debra Owen situation." A process that he had no business being involved in!

    And, while the seven other councilors "weighed in" on the South Dakota Open Meetings reprimand, Councilor Aguilar "hid out" and expressed no opinion. Now, we have the Vice-Chair, Councilor Erpenbach trying to cut potential new councilors out of the scheduling process!

    Does anyone else think it's time for some new leadership??!!

  4. I would love to see a recall of this mayor but who is going to start the recall effort and who will sign since most people are even afraid to identify themselves now for fear of reprisal by him. Sad commentary of City Hall today.