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The Pennington County Administration building in downtown Rapid City.

As it is at any workplace, it is best that employees avoid the combustible topic of politics. It is especially the case when the workforce consists of government employees who routinely deal with anxious customers.

That can be difficult, however, when your employer is Pennington County and it opens the doors to petitioners who are frequently collecting signatures for ballot measures or to challenge elected officials' spending decisions.

In order to refer a matter to the ballot, petitioners must gather signatures from registered voters. One of the most popular spots for this is the entrance to a government workplace — in this case, the County Administration Building in Rapid City.

It is an accommodating location for petitioners, which could get even better when the weather takes a turn for the worse as it often does in the Black Hills.

Currently, Pennington County allows them to come indoors when the sheriff determines the weather is “inclement,” a vague term that leads some county officials to believe it leaves the county vulnerable to a lawsuit if petitioners want to challenge what is inclement or not.

In response to that concern, Jay Alderman, chief deputy of the Pennington County State's Attorney's Office, has been charged with creating a more sweeping policy regarding petitioning, solicitation and sales on county property. The policy, he said, needs to more clearly define "actively storming," and should include factors like the wind chill. It sounds like just defining inclement will lead to a lengthy policy and considerable discussion by county commissioners who have a reputation for lengthy debates on even small matters, which this is not.

Besides the thorny issue of defining inclement weather, there is the issue of managing petitioners who once inside the building can be expected to resume their search for signatures. A prime spot for that is on the first floor where a long line of people is almost always waiting to see a clerk from the Treasurer's Office, which is where taxes and fees are paid and contentious conversations can occur.

As a result, security is an upmost concern in the administration building. County commissioners learned that last year when the Sheriff’s Office said it could no longer station a deputy on the first floor due to budget cuts. County employees complained that would make their workplace decidedly less safe, which resonated with commissioners who then found funds to keep the law enforcement presence there.

As part of the new policy, County Treasurer Janet Sayler wants to prohibit petitioners from seeking signatures from those waiting in line to see one of her clerks — a reasonable request that should be in the policy.

The commission, however, should discuss if petitioners should be allowed at all in a county workplace. Their activities could cause a distraction for employees while potentially putting people there for business in an uncomfortable situation since there is little or no privacy while standing in line, for example. It could also be the catalyst for political arguments that could quickly escalate. Also, no matter how the county defines inclement or actively storming, the policy could still be challenged in court. 

Petitioners have plenty of places where they can collect signatures and it is not the role of government to guarantee them a warm place to gather them from a captive crowd. In developing this policy, the top priority should be maintaining a workplace where business is conducted in an efficient and professional manner and political solicitations are not tolerated.

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