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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

August 2, 2017

Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, July 30

City needs to shop for a supermarket

Some call it an opportunity, while others see it as a problem — particularly for low-income residents who don’t have transportation.

As soon as October, Rapid City could lose three grocery stores, including two in the downtown area as well as one on the west side of town. The decision by SpartanNash to close the stores and consolidate its operations in two other stores has raised concerns from people like Mary Corbine, the food security manager of Feeding South Dakota who told the Journal the decision “will impact a lot of people and not just the people who are food insecure.”

The response from the city has been to put a more positive spin on the announced closures of FTC Express on Sturgis Road, the Family Thrift Center on Omaha Street and Prairie Market on York Street.

Mayor Steve Allender called it an “opportunity” and “that there are many reasons, in my mind, to be positive about it as there are negatives.” Ben Snow, the president of the Rapid City Economic Development Partnership, expressed similar sentiments.

Both Allender and Snow said they could see a day when a grocery store comes to either Main or St. Joseph Street that would help fill that void and meet the needs of the growing number of young people who live in downtown Rapid City.

Unfortunately, that won’t help those who could soon find themselves no longer within walking distance — all stores are well over one mile from a supermarket — of a grocery store as winter approaches.

If the city wants to view closures or vacant retail space as opportunities, it is safe to say that Rapid City is becoming the land of opportunity. Retail space is available downtown, in the strip mall at Baken Park and on the west and north sides of Rapid City — in some cases for months.

If the city sees the closure of the grocery stores as something potentially positive, it needs to do something positive to make that happen. It should not simply wait for a suitor to come courting.

Economic development — and in this case meeting a clear need, as well — requires a pro-active approach. The city needs to consider recruiting a supermarket for downtown Rapid City or create an environment where food markets owned by local merchants can have a chance to flourish.

It is not unprecedented for the city to incentivize businesses to come to Rapid City or encourage developers to build in the community. While it didn’t work out, the most recent example is President’s Plaza where Vision Funds and tax-increment financing were approved to take advantage of the opportunity at the intersection of St. Joseph and 5th streets. The city has used these economic-development tools in the past with varying degrees of success, including offering incentives to bring Cabela’s to Rapid City.

If as city Planning Manager Vicki Fisher says “this could very well be a positive for the community as a whole,” the city needs to make a concerted effort to bring a grocery store to downtown Rapid City as the “whole” also includes those who depend on those stores.

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The Daily Republic, Mitchell, July 31

Hisses and cheers

HISSES to the federal funding cuts that caused LifeQuest to lose its free lunch program.

LifeQuest provides an immeasurable service to our community, but U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cuts left the agency that supports people with developmental disabilities without the ability to provide lunch to 80 clients.

It’s always disappointing when a federal budget cut has a negative impact on an agency like LifeQuest, which may have been an unintended victim of the USDA cuts. But we’re hoping local organizations, or possibly the city of Mitchell, realize how essential LifeQuest is in our community and send a bit more financial support their way.

CHEERS to the approval of a contract that will support a large waterslide at Mitchell’s indoor aquatic center.

As Mitchell City Councilman Mel Olson put it, not adding the waterslide that was included in drawings of the proposed facility would have been “a bait and switch.”

And we agree. When Mitchell voters took to the polls, they thought they were voting for an indoor aquatic center with a large waterslide, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.

We commend the Mitchell Parks and Recreation Department for finding funding for the slide through an exclusive beverage agreement with Pepsi distributor WP Beverages LLC.

Hopefully folks attending Mitchell sporting events enjoy Pepsi products, because in a few years, it will be their only option.

HISSES to the crash that claimed the lives of a grandfather and grandson in Wessington Springs last week.

Fatal crashes are always devastating news, and the impact on a family only worsens when multiple relatives are lost.

We hope this serves as a reminder to remain cautious on the roads over the summer. And with traffic about rise due to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the Black Hills, we know we’ll be using extra caution, too.

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Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, July 28

Where are the lessons from Gear Up debacle?

Can anything positive come from the interminable Gear Up scandal, a bureaucratic shell game in which federal funds were shuffled and stolen amid countless conflicts of interest, culminating in unthinkable tragedy and the erosion of public trust?

Perhaps. But only if South Dakotans keep a watchful eye on our state government’s ongoing failure to enact meaningful ethics reform despite ample call to action.

Tepid oversight steps taken after legislative repeal of IM 22′s sweeping reforms last session wouldn’t have provided much of a firewall against the scandal surrounding Mid-Central Education Cooperative in Platte.

Answers are still being sought, in courtrooms and elsewhere, after $1.4 million intended to brighten the future of Native American students was stolen under the nose of the state Department of Education — a lingering black mark to Dennis Daugaard’s tenure as governor.

Moves toward ethics reform have failed to match the intensity of public outrage. Even if small steps toward government accountability had been taken earlier, it may have sparked more scrutiny of executive branch officials whose job was to provide administrative oversight and protect the state’s interests.

In the case of Gear Up, which crossed into human tragedy with the heinous actions of Mid-Central business manager Scott Westerhuis, it’s interesting and disturbing to see Education Secretary Melody Schopp continue to deflect blame from herself and her department.

Schopp was inexplicably slow to grasp and act upon the fraudulent practices of the educational cooperative. When she finally moved to pull the plug on the contract due to sloppy bookkeeping and poor results, she requested a meeting with Mid-Central director Dan Guericke, a longtime acquaintance who now faces felony charges.

When Guericke asked about reason for the meeting, Schopp told him over the phone that the state was canceling the Gear Up contract. Because of that phone call, Guericke was able to inform Westerhuis of the state’s decision, paving the way for the destruction of evidence.

No one could have anticipated the horror of what occurred at the Westerhuis estate, where the business manager killed himself and his family and set fire to their home. But there were major missteps amid a shocking inability to comprehend the magnitude of financial malfeasance.

Schopp herself testified before the Government Operations and Audit Committee this week as legislators assessed the extent of their power to investigate the scandal, with some calling for a greater legislative watchdog role over the executive branch.

They’ve identified the right problem. But going back to the type of independent accountability board proposed by IM 22 is the best way to deliver significant ethics reform.

The watered-down accountability board only oversees the executive branch and statewide office holders instead of covering all state workers and contractors, and citizen representatives have been replaced with retired judges appointed by the governor.

For South Dakotans repulsed by the lack of transparency in the EB-5 scandal under former governor Mike Rounds and then the Gear Up debacle under Daugaard, the executive branch naming its own overseers is an unacceptable response.

Guericke and two others stand accused of various felonies including grand theft and falsification of evidence stemming from the scandal. Regardless of how those prosecutions conclude, Daugaard and Attorney General Marty Jackley will undoubtedly seek to claim that the Gear Up mess has been adjudicated and meaningfully addressed.

They might even cite the new accountability board as evidence that state leaders have learned their lesson and are actively seeking to rebuild the public trust.

Voters are smarter than that. They see the damage to our state when something as disturbing and preventable as Gear Up takes place and want to see a degree of accountability. Maybe it’s as simple as someone saying, “This happened under my watch and I take responsibility. Let’s find out where we stumbled and fix it.”

Instead, Schopp seemed to suggest this week that her department’s role was overblown and there was no direct indication of anything amiss as more than $1 million was siphoned from federal education grants instead of reaching Native American students.

“We made our determinations on fact, not hearsay,” she told lawmakers.

Citizens can say the same. It’s a fact that greater checks and balances are needed to serve as deterrent for ethical abuses in Pierre, which is why IM 22 passed against all odds last November.

It’s a fact that trust was not restored when legislators chose to strike down that law and replace it with more tepid measures that help them protect their own.

And it’s a fact that when something as egregious as Gear Up rocks a state in scandal, people in power should be willing to accept blame rather than pass the buck, a necessary step in the ongoing march to restore public faith.

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