A member of a local public board who is angry about coverage by the Rapid City Journal proposed allocating $100,000 of taxpayer funds Tuesday night to sue the newspaper.
The motion was defeated 6-3, but a follow-up motion to draft a letter to the Journal requesting a retraction of allegedly inaccurate reporting was approved 6-3.
The motion to allocate money for a lawsuit was made by Nathan Gjovik, one of nine directors on the board of the West Dakota Water Development District.
“When you’ve got a bully on the beach, sometimes you’ve got to go pop them on the nose before you get things squared away, and that’s kind of how I look at the Rapid City Journal situation,” Gjovik said during the meeting.
Director Thomas Mack cast one of the votes against Gjovik’s motion.
“We have much better use for $100,000,” Mack said during the board’s discussion. “We could actually be funding water projects, which is our intended purpose.”
The board had a 25-item agenda Tuesday and met for 5½ hours — beginning at 6 p.m. and ending at 11:30 — in the Community Room at the West River Electric Association building in eastern Rapid City. Around 11 p.m., a representative of West River Electric stepped in to ask when the meeting would end, because the continued presence of people in the building at so late an hour was triggering automated security alarms.
The board’s discussion of the Journal consumed more than one-third of the meeting, beginning with 33 minutes in open session, followed by 1 hour and 18 minutes when the board went behind closed doors to speak with its attorney, and then another 20 minutes in open session, for a total of 2 hours and 11 minutes devoted to the issue.
The purpose of the West Dakota Water Development District, according to its website, is “partnering with state and local entities to protect water resources.” The district consists of the portion of Pennington County that lies west of the Cheyenne River.
Property owners in the district are assessed a small tax levy, which generated about $224,000 in revenue for the district this year. According to a report by the board’s treasurer Tuesday night, the board has spent about $77,000 so far this year on administrative expenses and about $86,000 on water projects, and the district’s cash balance is about $482,000.
In other words, an expenditure of $100,000 for a lawsuit would have absorbed about 45 percent of the district’s 2018 revenue, would have exceeded 2018 spending on water projects by about $14,000, and would have consumed about 20 percent of the money the district has on hand.
When Gjovik broached his idea for the lawsuit Tuesday night, he repeatedly said the board had been defamed by the Journal. Included in his long list of complaints was a Journal story that described some members of the board as “ultra-conservative,” and a Journal story that quoted an audience member criticizing the board at an October 2017 public meeting. Gjovik claimed that in both instances, the Journal’s intent was to defame the board.
After the executive session with the board’s lawyer, the board reconvened in open session, and Gjovik made his motion to allocate money for suing the Journal. But the motion did not include the word “defame” or any variant of it. Instead, Gjovik moved that "the West Dakota Water Development District Board of Directors rework our budget and allocate $100,000 to pursue a possible class-action lawsuit against the Rapid City Journal for damages associated with their biased news reporting.”
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Voting in favor of allocating money for a lawsuit were Gjovik and directors Mike Mueller and Ken Moss. Voting against the motion were directors Mack, Robert Williams, James Bialota, Jeanette Deurloo, Dan Bjerke and Ernest Getty.
After Gjovik’s motion failed, Bialota made a motion to draft and send a letter to the Journal requesting a retraction of alleged inaccuracies in news stories. Voting in favor of that motion were Bialota, Mueller, Gjovik, Getty, Williams and Moss. Voting against it were Bjerke, Mack and Deurloo.
Several directors were subsequently appointed to draft the letter. They made plans to exchange emails about the letter and to meet next week to discuss it.
Mueller, Moss and Getty were all up for election on Nov. 6, and they all lost. Their terms will expire at the end of the year, and their successors will be installed in January.
Mueller seemed to blame his loss on the newspaper's reporting.
"Congratulations on the win," he said in comments directed toward the Journal during Tuesday night's meeting. "Your judgment day is ahead."
The three winning challengers — Dan Driscoll, Ronald Koth and Steven Rolinger — ran a united campaign, along with another candidate, Linda Harris, who won a seat that was open because of Deurloo’s decision not to seek re-election.
Together, the four successful candidates had been motivated to run by controversial board actions in recent years, some of which were reported by the Journal. Those board actions included a decision last year to eliminate the district’s funding of two stream gauges in the Black Hills, and a decision this past October to commit up to $7,500 in public funds for legal fees to oppose local regulations on septic systems.
The October action was urged by George Ferebee, a former director of the water district and a lame-duck Pennington County commissioner who has tried to thwart local septic laws that he views as examples of government overreach. His tactics have included failed petitions to the state Water Management Board, a failed complaint to the State Open Meetings Commission about the Water Management Board’s proceedings, and a fight against prosecution in Pennington County.
The prosecution has been ongoing since 2015, when Ferebee was charged with refusing to have his own septic system pumped, inspected and permitted as county laws require. He was convicted at a trial and then appealed and earned a second trial, which was conducted in June. The judge in the second trial has not yet issued a ruling.
Meanwhile, at Ferebee’s urging, the board of the water district is petitioning the state Water Management Board to issue a declaratory ruling on a state administrative rule. Essentially, the board is seeking a declaration that cities and counties cannot legally regulate septic systems, or at least cannot regulate systems that existed before a 1975 change in South Dakota law.
The state Water Management Board had been scheduled to conduct a hearing on the matter Dec. 5, but the city of Rapid City and Pennington County both intervened to oppose the water district’s petition, which triggered a delay of the hearing until at least March.