A new majority on the board of the West Dakota Water Development District voted Monday night to withdraw a controversial board petition that opposed local regulations on septic systems.
The board’s meeting at the West River Electric Association building in eastern Rapid City was the first meeting of 2019 and included the seating of four new board members elected in November.
The four new members joined with two other incumbent members and voted 6-3 to withdraw the board’s recent petition to the state Water Management Board.
The petition, which was approved by the West Dakota board in July, seeks a declaratory ruling on several legal issues. The issues include whether local regulations on septic systems violate a South Dakota administrative rule that exempts systems installed prior to 1975.
Both the city of Rapid City and Pennington County have expressed formal opposition to the petition, asserting that they have a legal right to impose stricter septic regulations than the state. The petition was scheduled to be considered by the state Water Management Board at a March hearing.
New West Dakota board member Dan Driscoll said during Monday night’s meeting that he had spoken to numerous people about the petition during his campaign for election to the board.
“Categorically I heard no support whatsoever for this issue, and categorically what I heard was disbelief that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund this effort,” Driscoll said.
The taxpayer dollars come from a levy on owners of property west of the Cheyenne River in Pennington County, who collectively paid about $230,000 to the district in 2018. In October, the West Dakota board voted to spend up to $7,500 for attorney Kenneth “Chuck” Jasper to advocate for the board's petition during state Water Management Board proceedings.
Monday night, Jasper said he has already done between $3,000 and $3,500 worth of work on the petition. He said he will now draft a letter to notify the Water Management Board that the petition has been withdrawn.
West Dakota board member Nathan Gjovik cast one of the three failed votes to keep the petition alive. He described the petition as a fight against government overreach, in the form of Rapid City and Pennington County laws that require septic systems to be licensed and periodically pumped and inspected.
“There are people that are being pursued by Pennington County for violation of a law or an ordinance that Pennington County imposed that is in contradiction to state law,” Gjovik said.
Voting with Gjovik to keep the petition alive were board members Robert Williams and James Bialota. Voting to withdraw the petition were the four new board members, Driscoll, Ron Koth, Steve Rolinger and Linda Harris, plus Dan Bjerke and Thomas Mack.
There was also board discussion Monday night about another controversial past action by the board to eliminate funding for two stream gauges in the Black Hills. The devices are part of a network of gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Board member Bjerke put that item on the agenda and expressed his desire to restore the funding. But questions about the issue from other board members went unanswered, partly because Bjerke said the ongoing shutdown of some federal government offices prevented USGS officials from attending the meeting. The board voted to postpone the matter until Feb. 12.
Monday’s meeting was the board’s last at the West River Electric building. In a December letter, Dick Johnson, the CEO/general manager of West River Electric, said his board rescinded permission for the West Dakota board to hold future meetings in the building. Johnson wrote, “There has been controversy lately with your Board and the use of the room,” and he noted that a recent West Dakota board meeting lasted so late into the night that motion-detector security alarms were triggered, requiring two on-call West River Electric personnel to respond to the premises.
West Dakota board members on Monday discussed several possible places to hold future meetings and directed the board’s part-time administrator, Daniel Mulally, to research those possibilities. In the meantime, the board decided to hold its Feb. 12 meeting at The Garage in downtown Rapid City, where the district has a small office for Mulally.
In other actions Monday night, the West Dakota board:
- Approved a 30-day notice of the board’s intent to adopt a new conflict-of-interest disclosure policy and heard a verbal disclosure from Driscoll, who abstained from the stream-gauge matter because of the part-time work he still does for the USGS following his retirement from the agency.
- Elected Bjerke as chairman, Mack as vice chairman, Harris as secretary and Rolinger as treasurer.
- Reviewed a treasurer’s report that showed, among other things, $482,645.06 on hand as of Dec. 28.
- Adopted a 2019 schedule that includes meetings on Feb. 12, March 12, April 9, May 14, June 11, July 9, Aug. 13, Sept. 10, Oct. 8, Nov. 12, Dec. 10 and also Jan. 14, 2020.
- Designated the Rapid City Journal, Hill City Prevailer and Wall Pennington County Courant as the district’s official newspapers for the publication of legal notices in 2019, following a failed attempt by Gjovik, Williams and Bialota to exclude the Journal for what Gjovik described as the newspaper’s “biased reporting.”