Dozens of Rapid City residents and business owners filed complaints Monday against Rapid City Council President Laura Armstrong to the city attorney's office.
Some of the complaints stem from social media posts and pages that opponents of a recent mask mandate proposal call a "naughty list."
Tonchi Weaver, who brought almost 100 complaints to the city attorney's office, said charges made against Armstrong range from her "condescension and attitude" toward those speaking before the city council against the mask mandate to "abuse of office, illegal activity and cyber bullying" related to her posts on social media sites.
Weaver said Armstrong posted on sites that included lists of Rapid City businesses to avoid due to mask requirements. According to Weaver, those posts are an abuse of Armstrong's position on the council and caused damage to businesses she referred to as a "targeted class."
Weaver said that targeted class includes businesses that "didn't conform to Armstrong's point of view on masks."
State Rep. Phil Jensen was among those who filed a complaint with city attorney's office on Monday morning.
He said, "Laura (Armstrong) has abused her position as a city councilwoman by targeting legal businesses that don't hold her political position regarding local citizens being required to have patrons wear masks. She is a scold that does not deserve to be on the city council."
Weaver said there was an effort to recall her from the council, but she thinks the council should police its own members and in this case remove Armstrong.
"When the government loses its virtue, we have no republic," Weaver said. "When the council was voting to remove Mrs. Modrick earlier this year, Mrs. Armstrong supported that vote because people need to have confidence in members of the council. We don't have confidence in her after she did this."
"I don't care when they do it, but I think the council needs to do this," Weaver said.
City Attorney Joel Landeen pointed out that the council would not be able to take up the issue for at least 10 days. He said anytime a council member receives a complaint, they are granted up to 10 days to respond. At that point, the council may decide to discuss the complaints in executive session and determine if any action is warranted.
Normally, those complaints are confidential until action is taken, but since the group filing them made their concerns public, Armstrong authorized Landeen to release the complaints to the media.
The newest member of the council, Ron Weifenbach — who won a special election to replace Lisa Modrick after the council removed her from her seat early in 2020 — sent an email to Visit Rapid City President and CEO Julie Jensen on December 2 asking about one of the pages in question. The Facebook page called "Caring Businesses of Rapid City" was created to promote local businesses that followed CDC guidelines during the pandemic. Many of those who filed complaints accused Armstrong of creating or supporting the page.
On a December 15 post to the page, a different woman claimed to be the page's creator and moderator.
"My name is Natalie LaFrance-Slack and I wanted to start this page because both of my parents have cancer — so helping them find places to shop and eat that are offering CDC-advised safety measures was important," the post said. "I have had a few other personal friends help moderate the page and we appreciate all of the community members who have helped notify us of local businesses and restaurants that are helping care for and keep Rapid City safe. Be well!"
A screenshot of a post from the Laura Armstrong Ward 5 City Council page contains a post that says, "In response to the Council vote to lift restrictions, some friends and I created a FB page called Caring Businesses of Rapid City." The post from June 16 went on to say that the intention of the page was to support and promote Black Hills businesses who adhere to CDC guidelines.
"It is meant to be positive and supportive," Armstrong said in the post. "Negative trolls and nasty comments will not be welcomed."
Some who made complaints equated businesses being listed as places to "avoid" as blacklisting local businesses.
Armstrong called the information in the complaints a misinformation campaign Monday afternoon.
"I am aware of the complaints that were filed, those, in conjunction with the letters to the editor that were submitted, are grossly misstating the facts surrounding this Facebook page," she said. "The Caring Businesses of Rapid City Facebook page was created to promote local businesses that follow CDC guidelines and enforce masks to protect our most vulnerable members of our community. It’s unfortunate this public service was misconstrued and is being manipulated into a misinformation campaign."
Weifenbach received an email that was included in a complaint filed by Nick Uhre, a local hotel owner. In the email, Julie Jensen explained to Weifenbach that the Facebook page had been included on the Visit Rapid City website during the summer "at the request of Councilwoman Laura Armstrong." Jensen had the page removed from Visit Rapid City on December 2.
Jensen said on Monday that her email to Weifenbach distributed in the complaints was incorrect.
"Visit Rapid City wants to make one thing very clear," she said in an email to the council and local media. "We were never asked by Council Member Armstrong to put the Caring Businesses link on our website. I was mistaken when I suggested that to another council member. Our marketing team 'stumbled' across it and thought it would be a great resource to visitors to our area. We receive calls daily asking us which businesses require masks. Some want to go to those businesses and some want to know which businesses don’t require masks. When we discovered it was 'controversial' we decided to remove it."
Jensen said she doesn't see keeping people safe as a matter for debate.
"Making the safety of visitors to our city a political issue is beyond appalling," Jensen said in an email. "Visit Rapid City will continue to encourage safe practices for all our hospitality industry. Visitors deserve that respect."
Several of those filing complaints were expected to make public comments before the council's regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday.