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Council never intended to skirt state's Open Meetings Law, vice president says
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All city council members know having a closed meeting with a quorum of members is against the law, the Rapid City Council vice president said Monday.

Vice President Lance Lehmann said council President Laura Armstrong also knows this, even if she misspoke while meeting with the media on Friday.

“I know she knows better,” he said.

Armstrong announced Friday that the council plans to hold monthly closed meetings, called “retreats,” in order to have more informal dialogue between council members.

When asked if the meetings would be closed to the public and allow council members only, Armstrong said yes. When asked if the public would see a summary of the meetings, she said it was a "work in progress."

The full transcription and audio of the conference can be found at rapidcityjournal.com


Council president Laura Armstrong on Rapid City Council 'retreats'

The city sent out a press release last Tuesday that there may be a quorum of the council at the Friday meeting, although no action would be taken. The meeting was held in the third-floor training room of City Hall.

Lehmann said the Friday meeting had an informal discussion about the code of conduct and moving forward with the Wednesday working sessions in the third-floor conference room, which has room for 30 to 40 people. He said they may move the working sessions to a different room, while being recorded, to have council members and city staff on the same eye-level.

The Wednesday working sessions were implemented near the end of 2020 to combine the Public Works and Legal and Finance committee meetings and are broadcasted to the city’s YouTube page. There was discussion before the meetings were implemented to not broadcast them to have an informal dialogue between council members, but council members ultimately decided to have them recorded.

Lehmann said he would like to continue having the monthly meetings, which are open to the media and public. He said the meetings will be publicly noticed like Friday’s meeting.

Mayor Steve Allender said Monday he was not consulted on the council retreat from Friday nor did he weigh in or ask to weigh in on the matter. He also said he wasn’t invited to the meeting, which “isn’t unusual.”

He said he hasn’t spoken to Armstrong about the retreat and that the council and its members are separate entities.

Allender said he doesn’t believe Armstrong’s intent was to break any open meeting laws.

He said he will leave the issue to council leadership and the city attorney to work out a resolution and plan moving forward for the retreats.

“There are enough cooks in the kitchen at this point,” Allender said. “I’m confident they can get it worked out.”

He said an obvious workaround would be to have multiple closed sessions with fewer members than what makes up a quorum, which is six or more members.

“Frankly, we do that sometimes to inform the council of an upcoming meeting on the agenda or whatever,” Allender said. 

He said he meets with eight of the council members, either individually or in groups of two separated by ward. He said they will occasionally meet four at a time on a Zoom call to let them know the progress of an ordinance.

He said the city is careful in sending emails and makes sure to blind carbon copy, or bcc, council members so as not to get a conversation going.

City attorney Joel Landeen said he doesn’t remember a discussion on the Friday retreat or future retreats.

“I guess the bottom line is ... the city is well aware as a whole that if six council members get together to talk about public business that it’s a public meeting and the media and public cannot be excluded from it and it needs to be noticed,” Landeen said. “That’s why the meeting on Friday was noticed, and if the public or media had asked or wanted to attend, they would have been allowed to attend.”

He said that it’s assumed the media and public would be allowed to attend due to the notice.

Landeen said he has not met with council leadership regarding the retreats moving forward.

He said he has previously spoken with council members regarding retreats and quorums in the past. He said having six council members or more in the same room discussing the council or city business “isn’t an option.”

Landeen was not at the press conference Friday and said he was not at the retreat either.

Council President Laura Armstrong did not respond to request for comments via email or phone by 5 p.m. Monday.


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Local business steps up to save prom for Rapid City students
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Citing concerns about the coronavirus and large social gatherings, Rapid City Area Schools made the decision last week to cancel this year's junior/senior prom. That action prompted a local event company to step up to offer a post-graduation prom set for June 5 at the Civic Center.

HomeSlice Media's Brad Jurgensen made the announcement Monday with RCAS Superintendent Lori Simon.

Simon defended the school district's decision to cancel prom, normally scheduled for mid-April, because of concerns that a large social gathering could become a super-spreader event for students prior to the last few weeks of school.

"Like Sioux Falls and other large school districts in South Dakota, Rapid City Area Schools leadership made the unpopular decision to cancel prom last week," Simon said. "We believe that holding a large-scale event with 1,200-1,500 students, that by its very nature discourages physical distancing, is really tough to justify in this current climate. Certainly, the CDC has not changed any of its perspectives on such large-scale gatherings."

Simon said the No. 1 priority for the school district is to remain at level one for the rest of the school year, ensuring students complete the school year successfully and for seniors to be able to graduate without an outbreak of COVID-19.

"One or more cases of COVID-19 at an event like prom, where there is extreme close contact, could require hundreds of students to quarantine or cause an outbreak during the final weeks of school," she said. "It’s a risk we are unwilling to take."

However, having a private event company handle a large social event after the school year is over is an idea the district's administration "can get behind," Simon said.

"By holding the prom after graduation, we will reduce the risk of an outbreak in those important final weeks of school," she said. "While this event will be organized and held by HomeSlice Media Group, we will be handling ticket sales and help with security efforts to ensure that it is a safe event for our students."

Jurgensen said the topic of prom has become "hotly contested" on social media. He said HomeSlice Media wanted to step up and provide an alternative event for students after graduation.

"Our hope is that we can work with the school and parents who want to have a voice in this and start having a conversation about this," Jurgensen said. "We want to have a cool prom for our kids, keep it safe and how we can make sure everyone can attend."

Many of the details regarding the prom are yet to be announced, including what precautions will be in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among high school juniors and seniors attending the event. Jurgensen said HomeSlice Media will be making additional announcements about the prom in the coming days.

"We will still be working out a ton of details on this. There are a lot of moving parts, and we welcome reaching out and talking to a lot parents if they have any questions or concerns," he said. "We will obviously need some parents, school and local business support to make sure we can put on a cool prom for our kids."

Simon said she hopes everyone in the community can see the alternative prom arrangements as a win-win for the students. She said by holding prom after graduation, it will also allow health care providers to distribute more vaccinations for the coronavirus.

"If we wait until right after graduation, it can be a great way to end what has been really a long year and a half dealing with COVID at the school level," Simon said. "I think (it) would be an exciting way to end the school year on a positive note before we return to what we anticipate will be a more normal school year in the fall."


Legislature
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Supporters seek to amend medical marijuana bill proposed by lawmakers
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Medical marijuana advocates said Monday they are seeking a sponsor for an amendment to a House bill that gives the state an additional year to implement voter-approved Initiated Measure 26.

New Approach South Dakota and South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws described their amendment as a compromise to what lawmakers are now proposing in House Bill 1100A. The ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana was approved by 70% of the voters in November. It is scheduled to take effect on July 1. House Bill 1100A, proposed and amended by Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, delays that until July 1, 2022.

Advocates say they expect "considerable support" in both chambers for the compromise. The bill will be debated on the House floor on Tuesday.

While the proposal allows more time than was in the ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, it keeps protections in place for patients beginning July 1.

“By offering this compromise, we are making major concessions. We are agreeing to a delay that will make medical marijuana patients wait longer for legal and regulated safe access,” Melissa Mentele, executive director for New Approach South Dakota, said at a press conference Monday morning.

Mentele said the groups wanted to propose a “reasonable compromise” based on the concerns heard during testimony for HB 1100A. Legal protections for medical marijuana patients, however, are non-negotiable, she said.

“We are negotiating people’s lives with the Legislature, and we are not open to that. Patient protections have to be in place July 1. We have to protect the patients of South Dakota. They’ve waited long enough,” Mentele said.

The amendment also extends other deadlines in IM 26 to Jan. 31, 2022 — more time than the measure initially allotted for implementation, but less time than HB 1100A proposes. The other extensions include:

• Extending the Department of Health’s deadline to promulgate rules and regulations from Oct. 29, 2021, to Jan. 31, 2022. HB 1100A gives the DOH until Oct. 31, 2022.

• Extends the deadline to issue medical registration cards from Nov. 18 to Jan. 31, 2022. HB 1100A gives until Nov. 21, 2022 to do this.

• Extending the deadline to establish a secure phone or web-based verification system for registry identification cards from Oct. 29 to Jan. 31, 2022. HB 1100A’s proposal moves this to July 1, 2022.

• Extending the DOH and the Department of Education's deadline to establish a medicinal marijuana policy for schools from fall 2021 to Jan. 31, 2022. HB 1100A removes this provision.

Medicinal marijuana advocates also propose expanding the medical cannabis advisory committee and directing it to report recommended legislation to the Legislature by Dec. 15; increasing reporting requirements to monitor the implementation process, and clarify home cultivation limits for medical patients.

“We are making these concessions with a very heavy heart. We know that many medical marijuana patients advocates and supporters will be disappointed that Measure 26 will not be implemented as written. They are frustrated and angry that their votes are being ignored. We know that some medical marijuana patients will face hardships as a result of the changes proposed by our compromise. We know that the state was capable of implementing Measure 26 on the original timeline in the law. We know that these delays were avoidable. But we believe this is the right thing to do,” Mentele said.

The alternative, if HB 1100A passes as it now stands, would allow patients no protection under the law, which if prosecuted could lead to up to a year in jail for possession of a few grams. Mentele added that HB 1100A leaves the door open for legislators to later repeal Measure 26 entirely.

One of the other reasons the advocacy groups agreed to the compromise is because they recognize the DOH’s current obligations to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthew Schweich of the Marijuana Policy Project and South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws said advocates hope the Legislature will consider the proposal since it responds to legislative concerns and respects the will of the voters.

“We know that legislators want to do this the responsible way and we know that legislators want to listen to their constituents and respect the will of the people. This compromise allows us to do both. It’s a middle ground, and it’s something that could work for all sides,” Schweich said Monday.

Still, advocates said they were frustrated with the push back IM 26 has been receiving and that the compromise brings them no joy.

“Very sick people put this on the ballot, just like they were asked. And for [legislators] to come in during the last three weeks of session to try to overturn the will of the voters and delay it is heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating,” Mentele said.

“If the state had moved forward with implementation in earnest after Election Day then even the delays of our compromise would not have been necessary. And it is painful to have to accept this, especially since not only did we pass medical marijuana but we passed full legalization for adults, and now here we are negotiating over medical. The reality is that Governor Noem and others are very intent on rejecting the will of the people, and what we have on our side is over 70% support of Measure 26 … that’s what puts us in our position to compromise,” Schweich said. “We’re going up against considerable political force and we have to be pragmatic in order to get results.”


Legislature
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South Dakota lawmakers consider impeaching Attorney General Ravnsborg
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PIERRE | South Dakota lawmakers are considering impeaching the state’s attorney general as he faces misdemeanor charges for striking and killing a man with his car, Republican legislative leaders said Monday.

Jason Ravnsborg, the state’s top law enforcement officer, indicated he will not step down while he waits for the case against him to proceed. Prosecutors have charged him with three misdemeanors but no felonies in the September death of 55-year-old Joseph Boever.

Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Republican whip from Rapid City whose job is to gain support from his fellow lawmakers, said Ravnsborg should resign and that lawmakers are considering impeachment if he doesn’t.

“I think what’s best for everybody is that he just does the honorable thing and steps down,” Goodwin said, adding that the crash was tragic for both Boever’s family and Ravnsborg.

South Dakota law allows officials like the attorney general to be impeached for conduct that includes a “misdemeanor in office.”

Republican House Speaker Spencer Gosch acknowledged that impeachment was being weighed by lawmakers, but said that the legislative resolution that would start such proceedings has not been filed.

If the House initiates Ravnsborg’s impeachment, it would require a vote from at least half of House lawmakers to advance the impeachment resolution to the Senate. There, it would require two-thirds of senators to convict and remove him from office. Gov. Kristi Noem would get to appoint a replacement if Ravnsborg was removed from office or resigned.

“The investigators have presented their findings and recommended misdemeanor infractions in a wholistic process they described as going ‘above and beyond,’ and we look forward to the continued due process of law,” said Mike Deaver, a spokesperson for Ravnsborg.

He added that Ravnsborg is focused on his present duties as attorney general, especially during the legislative session.

"Governor Noem will not be making any further comment at this time," her spokesman Ian Fury said when asked if she wants Ravnsborg to resign and whether she supports an impeachment trial.

The Republican attorney general, who was elected to his first term in 2018, initially told authorities that he thought he had struck a deer or another large animal as he was driving home to Pierre from a Republican fundraiser late on Sept. 12. He said he searched the unlit area with a cellphone flashlight and didn’t realize he had killed a man until the next day when he returned to the accident scene on U.S. 14 near Highmore.

After an investigation that stretched over five months, prosecutors said they still had questions about the crash but were unable to file more serious criminal charges against Ravnsborg. They charged him with careless driving, driving out of his lane and operating a motor vehicle while on his phone.

Though prosecutors said he was not using his phone at the time of the crash, he had been using it while driving about one minute before. The attorney general could face up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine on each charge, if convicted.


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