THE DAILY REPUBLIC, Mitchell SD
Published March 15, 2012, 08:04 AM
OUR VIEW: Good for Sioux Falls' Brown at keeping true to his workVernon 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.
Good job, Vernon
SOUTH DAKOTA NEWSPAPER ASSOCIATION
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.
MARCH 12 CITY COUNCIL INFORMATION MEETING
COUNCILOR VERNON BROWN
"We were wrong. We ought to be contrite."
COUNCILOR MICHELLE ERPENBACH
"...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."
COUNCILOR JIM ENTENMEN
"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."
COUNCILOR GREG JAMISON
"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."
CITY ATTORNEY DAVID PFEIFLE
"The ripple effect of this change is enormous."
COUNCILOR REX ROLFING
"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."
COUNCILOR KENNY ANDERSON, JR.
"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."