By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – Fall River County commissioners visited the idea of video recording their bi-monthly meetings briefly at their Tuesday, Jan. 17 meeting, but came away largely dismissing the idea.
New Commissioner Paul Nabholz – following through on a campaign promise – brought up the idea of videoing the meetings, saying this would not be like videotaping county Planning and Zoning meetings of 20 years ago.
Nabholz made a thorough investigation of the topic to make his pitch for this to fellow commissioners. He talked to several governmental entities who video record their meetings about how this was done and their procedures, included Hot Springs officials and two county commissioners. He also had a cost estimate.
Nabholz said video recording meetings was important because this would give taxpayers who can’t attend meetings a chance to see what went on, that video recording meetings would offer an exact record of what occurred.
“The city does this,” he said. “It’s a good way to understand who promised what at meetings.”
He also thought this would help community members who appear before the commissioners be more civil, less likely to “pop off” if being videoed.
Nabholz said the county didn’t need a videographer, like the city uses, the camera could be hung from the back wall of the county courtroom.
Other governmental officials used video recordings in various ways, he said:
· Meade County Commissioner Linda Rausch told Nabholz her commission’s meetings were audio taped for a year, then video recorded.
· Custer County Commissioner Phil Lampert said only “worthwhile” meetings were video recorded.
· Closer to home, Hot Springs Mayor Cindy Donnell said that video recording proved “beneficial in verifying events for the non-attending public.” Also, Hot Springs Alderman Carolann Schwarzenbach, a Republican party leader, said the county should be video recording meetings.
· Within the county, State’s Attorney Jim Sword said he agreed that the county should begin video recording meetings. “It’s an idea to look into,” he said, “the time has come.” Sword cited several contentious county issues that could have been cleared up, and how people who work can’t attend county meetings. He also noted how video viewers can fast-forward through footage to see only what they want to watch, not wade through an entire meeting.
Nabholz believed that video recording could be money-saving. He pointed to the soil farm issue, and how a video recording of the meetings involved would have revealed whether or not the commission had violated open meeting laws.
For less than $2,500 per year, Nabholz said, the county could have videos of commissioner meetings recorded and available for the public. These could be seen on a public television channel via the school, on the Internet via social media site YouTube, and permanently stored on a DVD disc.
Start up costs would include $200 for a camcorder with sound; a 64 gigabyte memory card, $100; $25 camera tripod. Continuing costs would be about $2,000 annually for Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce Media Coordinator Justin Gausman, to transfer video from the meetings to YouTube, the television station and the DVD – labor for the several hours it would take to do this work.
While court proceedings cannot be recorded, these rules don’t apply to non-judicial proceedings, Nabholz said.
“We can do this,” he said, asking for fellow commissioner’s thoughts.
“We’ve always run an open meeting and been careful,” said Commissioner Joe Allen. “The meeting minutes are on the county website, and a copy of the minutes is available to everyone. It is a sign of the times, and I don’t know if I’d like to be under the magnifying glass. We hold relaxed commissioners meetings.”
Commissioners Deb Russell and Ann Abbott both didn’t like the idea.
“No one ever talked to me about doing this,” Russell said. “I’d like to hear input from people, if we get support or not. I want to see if people care.”
“I have a problem with this,” Abbot said. “If an issue were on the agenda – even if I was working – I would take it upon myself to go to the meeting. We have pretty open commissioner meetings, none of us have a personal agenda to bring to them. It is a sign of the times. No one has said to me ‘I wish you would tape meetings.’ I wonder what percentage of people really want to view the meetings.”
County resident Dusty Pence, in the audience for this issue, took umbrage with Abbot’s idea of attending a meeting if an important issue was on the agenda. She talked about people who work Monday through Friday jobs, sometimes two jobs, and have kids and live busy, busy lives. These people simply can’t make meetings, she said. “This really offended me,” Pence said.
Pence also said that she heard many people wonder why the county didn’t recording its meetings.
“This is about transparency,” Pence said, “you’re not making minor decisions. Print is not good enough.”
Abbott, who apologized for her comment to Pence, later said she could see video recording some meetings, like Custer County does.
Commissioner Joe Falkenburg also noted the website for sharing minutes and the opportunity to correct minutes.
Nabholz made a motion that the county video record its meetings, however it died for a lack of a second. He promised to bring the issue up again in two weeks.
In other business, the commissioners had another long discussion on the county taking property belonging to indigent persons to cover the costs of burials.
Sword repeated what he told the commissioners at their Jan. 3 meeting, that this was not worth the time or effort in most cases.
Sword contacted Pennington County to review their policies, and learned their coroner does not do this. Why? Any property taken from an indigent person for burial expenses must be sold within 30 days, then this money must be held for six years, so that the family can make a claim on it if they choose to, he said. If the family is entitled to the money, it must be given back. Sword cited a case where the Pennington County coroner acquired an indigent person’s property, a trailer, thinking it could recoup burial expenses. The trailer sold at auction for $1. Other problems included storage space for property, the time and effort of county employees in handling acquired items, and other issues.
Falkenburg wondered about a diamond ring or other items of value.
Sword said if something is clearly of value, it could become county property, but if it was something like the baseball cards he collected for years – they have no real value, but it was a worthwhile project – the county shouldn’t acquire this.
Sword said County Coroner Donna Behrens should determine if property was worth acquiring. If Behrens does this, it goes to the county Treasurer – currently Kelli Rhoe – and she would set up an account to deposit the money from the sale of this item in. The Treasurer should also do a search to find out if the “indigent” person really is indigent – looking for property, vehicles, etc. If property is found, the county should, as a business decision, not pay for burial.
“You paid for some burials you shouldn’t have had to,” he said. “The county is becoming a dumping grounds; when people can’t meet their bills, they figure the taxpayer will pay. You can deny a burial if there is property. It’s a business decision.”
Sword also said the county must do a proper accounting, an inventory of property found connected to the indigent person, on the person and in records. Sheriff’s Deputy Vince Logue noted that deputies photograph everything at the scene of a death, are required to investigate all deaths and create an inventory of property found.
Christmas blizzard FEMA money
County Emergency Manager Frank Maynard shared the state’s desire for a disaster declaration, to get Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money to help recover from the Christmas blizzard.
Maynard said the criteria for this was that each county have $3.61 per capita in blizzard-related damages. Fall River County’s threshold was $26,000. Maynard noted that Black Hills Electric Cooperative, alone, had $57,000 in damaged poles and lines from the blizzard, so the county qualified.
“This is big picture stuff,” said Nabholz. “It’s bizarre that a power company will go to FEMA to get money, spending all the bureaucratic time on this expecting money.”
Maynard noted that a disaster declaration starts with local utilities and infrastructure, then moves up from there. County snow removal costs, including overtime, could be part of the disaster-related damages as well.
The commissioners approved applying for this.
In two other snow-related matters, the commissioners talked about ice on the courthouse parking lot and approved creating a winter emergency shelter for travelers in Oelrichs.
Melting snow is icing the courthouse parking lot, Maynard said, and three falls had been reported in the lot. The county snow plow doesn’t have enough downward pressure to scoop the lot clean, so Maynard wanted to look at a $15,000 used skid steer or Bobcat to handle this, a multi-use tracked vehicle that could double as a fire break creator during summer.
Abbott said it wouldn’t hurt to see what was available. But Allen wondered if county highway employees could be paid some overtime to complete this mission, so Maynard was to coordinate this with Highway Superintendent Randy Seiler.
Also, Pat Logue’s Jan. 3 request for the county to provide blankets and cots for stranded winter travelers in Oelrichs was granted.
During the last snowstorm, with no place to stay in Oelrichs, a sheriff’s deputy had to take a traveler to the Prairie Winds casino on the reservation, a normally 15 minute trip, that required more than an hour and a half due to the storm, Logue said.
Maynard and Logue found surplus cots and mattresses for $20 each and wanted to buy 20 of these, and were looking for some heavy blankets, some for the jail. Maynard was searching in federal surplus.
The total cost for outfitting an emergency traveler’s station in Oelrichs would be $400 for the cots and mattresses, a $25 cart to store these in, plus about $110 for the blankets. Maynard believed he possibly get half of these costs attributed to emergency management.
Logue promised to take the shelter idea to the town board meeting last week, to get their approval, and perhaps a building – designated for emergency use only -- to store the supplies in.
Nabholz, however, wondered if stranded travelers couldn’t sleep on the floor of a church. He also foresaw the mattresses and blankets disappearing when a Boy Scout troop decided to go on a camping trip.
All commissioners but Nabholz approved the Oelrichs shelter.
In addition, the commissioners:
· Received a letter from the Fall River Conservation District (FRDC) voicing opposition to the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s request for a land assessment change for Flint Hills land the tribe owns. The tribe wanted this land, leased to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary/Institute of Range and the American Mustang, to be changed from non-agriculture to agriculture use for tax purposes.
FRCD said since it is part of a tourist attraction, and does not produce a “legitimate agricultural product” it should not qualify for ag classification. Falkenburg said the land should have more than horses, and Abbott said this was an issue that should be “watched”
· Discussed the former ammunition storage bunkers located in Igloo, and how a California company is leasing these out to “survivalists” awaiting a doomsday scenario. County Equalization Director Suzie Simpkins wondered how this land, currently in agricultural status, should be taxed. Simpkins said the bunkers are not considered as homes, and have no value in assessments. Sword called the leases a “scam,” but urged the commissioners to watch for plat changes on this land. Falkenburg wondered about putting the land into non-ag status and said if the bunkers got water, lights and electricity the county should deem them homes. Russell said the company leasing the bunkers would be responsible for the taxes.