By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – Fall River County commissioners rescinded their March 21 decision -- to set aside a state statute that prohibits weapons in the county courthouse, so those who wanted to, could carry weapons in the courthouse, to feel more secure – at their April 4 meeting.
After much public hue and cry about this issue and two days of court hearings being shut down because court officials were concerned about safety, the commissioners backed off their original decision.
Seventh Judicial Circuit Presiding Judge Craig A. Pfeifle closed the court on Friday, March 31 and Monday, April 3 as a result of the commissioners’ decision, and it was Pfeifle who told them they should reconsider their decision Tuesday morning.
Pfeifle told the commissioners that it was not just himself, but all the judges of the Seventh District court system, who didn’t approve of their decision.
“This is not a personal decision,” he said, “all the judges agree. This is not personal; I hunt, I have weapons and a carry permit.”
Pfeifle said that in a courthouse, emotions often run high – whether this is a court proceeding, or business with the auditor’s office or with the equalization office. Based on studies he’d seen, security experts he talked to, permitting weapons into the courthouse would increase the likelihood of someone who shouldn’t have access to a weapon getting one, not lessen it. This would decrease the level of security and safety in the courthouse, not increase it, he said.
Asking the commissioners to reconsider, Pfeifle offered to have Pennington County’s security experts, trained by U.S Department of Homeland Security, visit the Fall River County courthouse to do a security assessment of the courthouse, and assist the county in identifying where it needs to beef up its security efforts. He also suggested that the commissioners and county employees take some training in active shooter situations.
“I’ve got a couple of calls about this,” said Fall River Commission President Joe Falkenburg, “and I want to quote a song: You have to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away….”
“You’re holding all the aces in my book,” Falkenburg told Pfeifle. “We gotta have court.”
Commissioner Paul Nabholz was against the idea of rescinding the earlier decision – Nabholz made the original motion to permit weapons into the courthouse, and it was seconded by Falkenburg.
“My whole problem is the premise of this,” Nabholz said. He talked about the mass shootings he’d seen in the news, where there were no firearms present, and said such shooters will target schools specifically because these areas are “gun-free zones.”
“I trust people in general,” Nabholz said. “If I was in a crowd and someone was beating me down, I believe someone would come to help me. So I like the idea of courthouse employees not being attacked sitting down.”
Pfeifle countered saying it was more important to analyze and manage risk. According to statistics, using law enforcement, training for courthouse personnel, and removing security problems like pinch points in the courthouse would be a more effective way to handle security problems than increasing access to weapons.
Someone could leave a weapon in the courthouse for a jail inmate to pick up, Pfeifle said. He also wondered how law enforcement officials entering an active shooting scene would know who to look to? Who is a threat vs. who is an innocent citizen, he asked?
This is why a courthouse security assessment is important, Pfeifle said. He offered to work with Fall River Sheriff Bob Evans and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom to institute this effort.
Commissioners Joe Allen and Ann Abbott made the motion to rescind the March 21 decision, with Commissioner Deb Russell suggesting the county consider speeding up the security assessment effort. Russell was more worried about the security of people inside the courthouse.
Pfeifle said court was scheduled to resume Thursday.
Nabholz asked to see Pfeifle’s studies, and justified his interest in arming courthouse employees with the March 21 decision as “doing things in a moderate way.”
Nabholz also griped about closing the court without letting the county know it would do this.
“My intent,” Nabholz said, “was to improve safety.”
All of the commissioners but Nabholz voted to rescind the March 21 decision, so the original weapons in the courthouse ban returns.
Later in the meeting, the commissioners had a discussion about how the vote to approve waiving state limitations on weapons in the courthouse came about – there was some questions about this being discussed during three executive sessions held prior to the vote during the March 21 meeting.
Nabholz claimed The Star and The Rapid City Journal had it wrong, that there was no closed door executive sessions involved during the approval of the motion, and read a summary of what he believed occurred during the voting on this issue on March 21.
The Star’s Editor John Taylor disputed Nabholz’s claim that The Star got it wrong: The Star’s report never mentioned discussion about the weapons issue during executive sessions, only that executive sessions were held, then the weapons issue was approved.
Also, Rick Kaan, of Hot Springs, who attended the March 21 meeting, told the commissioners that the meeting room door was shut following the executive session, and that the public was not invited back into the meeting until Sword opened the door to let people back in.
Allen and Falkenburg both said any errors committed in the handling of this issue were errors or omission not commission, and there was never any intent on the commissioners part to mislead the public.
Sword said he agreed with Nabholz’s summation of the voting for the weapons issue following executive sessions, not during one. He also apologized for not being more proactive during the executive sessions to monitor Open Meeting rule requirements because he was “trying stay out of the commission’s politics during executive sessions.”
“But that doesn’t negate that we could have done a better job of informing the public,” Sword said, “which is why I talked to Joe (Falkenburg) and had this put back on the agenda. We should have put the brakes on.”
The commissioners apologized, declared the issue done with and vowed to do better going forward.
Ambulance bid approved
On Wednesday, April 5, the county was notified that its bid for the former Hot Spring Ambulance Service building on Fall River Road was approved. The county offered $330,000 for the building and will likely vote on formally approving the sale of the building today, following the equalization meeting, at 9 a.m.
Two television news crews – one from KELO land, another from Black Hills Fox– also Dusty Pence, a Fall River County citizen, wanted to tape the county commissioners meeting, held in the courtroom, due to the controversy surrounding the weapons in the courthouse issue. Uriah Luallin, a Hot Springs resident, also thought videotaping commissioner meetings was a good idea, and would allow those who can’t attend the meetings to see what happened.
All were denied this opportunity by Pfeifle a short time into the meeting, who noted that courthouse security was at risk if the inside of the courtroom were televised.
Pence decried this as not allowing “complete transparency” of the county’s meetings, and said State’s Attorney Jim Sword told her that so long as the courtroom was being used as a commissioner meeting room, recording the proceedings should be acceptable.
However, County Coroner Donna Behrens said that videotaping in a courtroom wasn’t a matter of “disclosure,” but prohibited by a state statute.
When another resident suggested the commissioners move their meetings to a location that could be videotaped – Luallin suggested the Mueller Center, where city council meets – and asked for a show of hands of which commissioners would be amenable to doing this, none of the commissioners raised their hands.
Commissioner Ann Abbott said that county department heads needed to be close to the meetings to report to the commissioners.
“We tried the Canyon Cottage,” Abbott said, noting that no citizens had ever contacted her about wanting to have meetings recorded,“ and it didn’t work as well, we need to be more efficient.”
Nabholz claimed it would take half a day to get department heads to and from a non-centralized meeting location.
Pence noted that she was circulating petitions to have the meetings videotaped.
“Sunlight,” said one resident about questions arising about who said what in county meetings, “is a good antiseptic, just look at your last meeting.”
CAFOs and agribusiness
Bob Weyrich, a South Dakota Department of Agriculture Western Agricultural Development Representative, came to a second county meeting to discuss county agricultural development. The state agriculture department’s Division of Agricultural Development assists with the development and promotion of agriculture and agricultural products.
Weyrich talked about developing Fall River County sites for agriculture and agribusiness, saying where there is a confluence of power, water and 40-acre parcels is an ideal place for agricultural development to take place. He then shared with the commissioners a map showing locations where potential heavy- or light water-use confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) or an agribusiness like a fertilizer plant or a feed mill might locate in Fall River County.
“Let me be clear,” Weyrich said, “This (map) doesn’t mean that this should have development, it just shows where it makes sense for it, where that confluence of factors. If this is something you can embrace, out on the prairie we can work with this.”
Weyrich threw in a caveat – he recalled one county he worked with where after a period of heavy rainfall, there was a lot of water capacity available for agribusiness to develop. However, this opportunity disappeared with a dry period. He also talked about landowners who might be involved in a potential development, and how these people’s privacy should be protected. This is why he would like to have Andrea Powers, of Southern Hills Economic Development Corporation, handle the effort, so no landowners get “robo-called” for deals.
“Fall River County needs economic development,” Falkenburg said.
Nabholz and Allen offered a motion to make the maps and other information available to the public, and this was approved, with SHEDCO using the map.
Edgemont policing contract
Sheriff Bob Evans shared with the commissioners Edgemont’s new proposal for a contract for continued county law enforcement. The county and Edgemont have been wrangling over a law enforcement contract since last fall.
Evans said Mayor Carl Shaw’s new proposal was for $66,000 annually to be paid to the county for 56 hours of weekly work from the sheriff’s department.
However, Evans pointed out, this would barely cover a single deputy’s salary: At an average wage of $18.50 per hour, 56 hours per week, this amounts to $53,000, Evans said, but doesn’t include any overtime, holiday or other pay. It also doesn’t include a car.
“I don’t know what he’s basing his figures on,” Evans said of Shaw’s proposal.
Falkenburg called Edgemont’s counter proposal to the county’s earlier contract pitch “apples and oranges” and said the county was not in a position to change the contract at this point in time. Allen and Russell agreed.
The commissioners decided to send a letter Falkenburg wrote to Edgemont regarding the contract, and wait until Edgemont’s elections were over next week and see if the city’s leadership changed before doing anything further.
Edgemont train crossing and police contract
Ben Tubbs had a comment to make about BNSF trains blocking intersections in Edgemont.Tubbs, a former railroader, said if the train computers go down, there is no way the trains can move. Also, if the county wants to arrest the train crew, like was threatened at a previous meeting, then it would still take an hour and a half to get them moving again anyhow.
Falkenburg said he believed the train issue had been resolved.
Dewey Burdock connections
Luallin also requested that when the commissioners consider the proposed in situ uranium mining at the Dewey Burdock site about 13 miles northwest of Edgemont, that anyone with financial connections to Powertech/Azarga Uranium now or in the past recuse themselves from voting on this controversial topic.
Nabholz said that no one from the Clean Water Alliance – a group against uranium mining – would be speaking at the 2017 Western South Dakota Hydrology Meeting, held in Rapid City on Thursday, April 6, to “get to the root of this stuff” (in situ uranium mining).
However, there were no uranium mining talks formally scheduled for the conference – its theme is “Feast and Famine: Floods and Droughts,” with four technical sessions combined with speakers and a social.