Commission approves additional staff, answers tough questions

This article regarding the Haakon County Commissioners regular meeting is longer than normal. It has been discovered that not all of the discussions at the meetings is being presented within the minutes in a complete manner to the public. Blanket statements regarding important discussions are being made in the minutes instead of details of the meeting. While this is not a legal matter, it raises concerns of why an office would hide information from a public meeting. Pioneer Review Representative, Chelsea Tobin, reached out to Auditor Carla Smith and asked why controversial topics are being left out of the minutes. Auditor Smith stated it is impossible for her and her deputy to keep track of everything that goes on in the meetings. While the Pioneer Review can be sympathetic with this opinion, it is not in the best interest of the public to leave out controversial topics. The following meeting was recorded by the Pioneer Review with the commissioners knowledge.
The Haakon County Commissioners met for their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, March 3. The meeting opened with approval of the March meeting agenda as well as February’s meeting minutes. There was a correction to the February minutes.
Smith presented information regarding a public records request by the Pioneer Review. A request was made for a copy of the February 2020 timesheet for the Director of Equalization clerk, with a breakdown of wages from the Register of Deeds office and the Director of Equalization office. Smith expressed concern with releasing the timesheet, although it is a public record, and informed the commission they would need a motion and a second to approve the release. “Part of my job is to protect this office from the potential of lawsuits by releasing private information,” said Smith. “And I don’t know enough about this area, so I want you guys [the commission] to make that decision,” she added.
The commission stated that would be a question for State’s Attorney Stephanie Trask, who was not present at the time of the discussion. Commissioner Nick Konst asked Smith who was requesting the time sheets. Smith informed Konst the timesheet request came from the Pioneer Review. Trask entered the meeting and the commission informed her of the public records request (which was e-mailed to her from the Pioneer Review). Smith asked if timesheets are public record or if it would be private  information. Trask responded that when it comes to a specific employee, she was unsure but would look into it. As for the request of a breakdown of wages from each office, Trask stated that it is a matter of public record. Smith again requested a motion and second from the commission to release the timesheet. Chairman Tom Radway asked Smith why the need for a motion and second if it’s public record. Smith stated the reason for her request, despite the record being a public record, was because she is uncomfortable. “I guess that’s my main issue, is [that] it’s one employee,” said Smith. Commissioner Mike Gebes stated, “yeah, why they’re singling out one employee”.
Trask stated to Smith, the commission doesn’t have to approve a public records request, it would be a matter of legality. If it’s not a matter of privileged information, the auditor’s office would then turn the requested document(s) over.
The commission then reviewed and approved a few agenda items and approved an amended Resolution regarding voting centers.
First on the list of scheduled appointments/reports was Pioneer Review Representative, Chelsea Tobin. Tobin was given a fifteen minute time slot to ask questions to the commission regarding various topics. The questions were sent to the auditor’s office before the meeting and included in each commissioner’s packet. All questions were asked to the commission as a whole, not individually.
The first question presented to the commission was, “What factor does the county use to determine which county offices receive full and/or part-time help?” Commissioner Steve Clements said, “part of it has to do with budget, part of it has to do with workload.” Tobin responded with, “and do those offices supply you their workload so you guys can determine who needs what help?” Radway stated the offices come in with their requests and then the help is given at the commissioners’ discretion.
The second question asked was, “It was stated to me on multiple occasions, the budget in the DOE office did not support additional full-time staff, however, in same year, the county received an estimated total of $86,502.24* in raises (not including benefits/retirement/etc). How could the county not afford to allow one full-time, certified deputy for the DOE, but the county could afford a county-wide increase in wages?”
{*The figure is an estimation using both Resolution 2019-03 and Resolution 2020-03 regarding wages within the county. The monthly increase in salaries were compiled and multiplied by 12 months and the hourly increase in salaries were compiled and multipled by 160 hours (80 hours per pay period x 2 for the month). The total amount in raises was figured by subtracting the 2019 total from the 2020 total.}
Commissioner Mike Gebes stated one of the reasons for the increase, was because the county was down four employees on the highway department. “That’s why you have a lot of that increase,” he said. “Basically we have three new people out there, plus a new superintendent this last year, that has a lot to do with that,” he added.
Konst stated, “and that was during budget time. None of those increases started until January [2020],” he said. “That doesn’t mean next year’s budget we won’t put that in, but most of the requests for this additional help has come in after our budget time was,” he said. Gebes added, “We had already done the budget by the time we do a resolution for the budget, so you can’t go back unless you’re going to go back and redo the whole budget.”
Regarding the county highway department and the reason for their increase, the math shows that the highway department received a $1.39 per hour increase in wages while the deputies received a more substantial increase of $3.32 per hour.
“I know the reason for the highway was to make them comparable to other highway departments and also we’re competing against local businesses and have our wages comparable to them,” said Gebes. Tobin clarified the reason for asking was because the highway department, who works out in the elements, etc. received almost half the increase that the county’s deputies received. Konst commented that several years ago, the State of South Dakota mandated the salaries of elected officials. “That put such a jump between the elected officials and the deputies, but the deputies are still required to do the same job as the officials,” he said.
The focus of the questions transitioned to the February 2020 regular meeting. The commission was reminded of a letter presented by Director of Equalization, Rose Bennett, during her appointment with the commission. A copy of the letter was requested by the Pioneer Review from the DOE office upon her exiting the meeting. It was the official removal of the clerk from the office. Tobin asked the commission why the letter did not get addressed in the February 4 meeting. Gebes started off by saying, “we’re going to read it and we’re going to digest it and we would probably go over it more this meeting than we would right at that exact time. You don’t usually just jump into that, you take it, look at it, okay, then we sit down and try to figure out what the best options for us to do. And anyway that’s my opinion,” said Gebes.
Konst stated he thought the letter was more personnel versus public.
Clements disagreed due to the letter being passed around the table in the meeting. He stated he thought that made it public. Konst agreed when it does go in front of the people but stated he felt it [the letter] shouldn’t have been. The commission was asked if they were aware that a response from them, concerning the hiring and termination of a deputy or clerk, is not needed. Per South Dakota Codified Law (SDCL) 7-7-21, Bennett provided the commission with a written notice of termination for the DOE clerk. The approval of the commission is not needed as “the officer in whose office a deputy or clerk is employed may appoint or remove a deputy or clerk at pleasure.”
The commissioners asked if this law was only applicable to elected officials. Trask stated no, this law was under the director of Equalization chapter and there is a slightly parallel statute for the actual commission itself. Trask referred to SDCL 10-3-11 which stated “the county commissioners may appoint deputies to the county director of equalization. Such deputies shall hold office at the pleasure of the county commissioners and are subject to the recommendations of the director of equalization and have the same powers and duties as the director of equalization.” Trask took the statutes to mean the commission can act in addition to, but still subject to the director’s recommendation and it has no effect on the director’s actions with regards to the deputy and/or clerk.
Upon that answer, Tobin stated as of February 4, 2020 it was the understanding that the clerk was let go from that office and informed the commission again of the outstanding Public Records Request for wages of February 2020 because it was being questioned if the clerk received wages from the DOE office for the month of February. Gebes was confused and questioned if the clerk was let go and stated, “We never let a deputy go from that office.” Trask clarified, “the letter that was submitted by the DOE, acting as the director, was to remove a deputy and so she [Tobin] was wondering why it [the letter] didn’t get addressed, because she [DOE Bennett] was taking official action as the director to remove the deputy, with the concern being that money should then not be taken out of her [Bennett] budget.” Gebes asked, “But we still have to make the approval, correct?” Trask responded, “not under the statute.”
Konst interrupted to state to Radway about the matter being “hugely personnel” and stated the matter shouldn’t be public at all. Concerning personnel issues, SDCL 1-25-2 states “Executive or closed meetings may be held for the sole purposes of...” It does not state they must be held.
Tobin informed the commission that there had been no discussion of the qualifications of the clerk but the discussion is in regards to a public record that was passed between each commissioner and was not addressed during the February meeting. The clerk has consequently been let go by the director, but the commission has not acknowledged the termination.
Tobin quoted SDCL 1-25-2 which states “Discussing the qualifications, competence, performance, character or fitness of any public officer or employee”. Tobin added a statement is being requested from the commission concerning why the clerk is still employed with the DOE office after being let go and asked if the clerk had been paid for February 2020. Konst asked if the clerk had been notified of the termination. Tobin stated that she was unaware. Konst replied that he did not have a good answer for the question regarding the clerks wages for February.
The commissioners were asked if they had verified that page 23 of the Personnel Policy Manual is being followed appropriately. Page 23 refers to the requirement of each department head signing off on timesheets. Radway stated that he was unaware of some of the personnel manual policies but assured the audience that will change.
Tobin asked the commission if any investigation had been launched into verifying the DOE clerk’s wages were correctly appropriated since August 2019. Gebes stated that he knows the clerk has not actually worked in the DOE office. The commission had not answered the original question concerning the clerk’s hours since August 2019 so Tobin repeated the question. Bennett has, in the past, claimed that the clerk had not worked in the DOE office since August 2019 but that hours had been claimed.
Radway questioned whose responsibility it was to check timesheets. Trask added clarification to the hour verification request made by Tobin, “Chelsea, your specific cite to the handbook, page 23, is whether the commission has verified the department heads are signing off on timesheets. I would say the responsibility on the commission, under that provision, of the handbook is to verify the department heads are signing off on timesheets.” Trask offered an option to the commission, that each month during their meeting, a statement could be made by each department head that they’ve signed off on the timesheets.
Clements asked if signed timesheets were an issue in every department or just one? Smith stated, “all department heads sign off, all but one.” Trask stated the commission could have fulfilled that provision by verifying with the auditor’s office that each department head is signing off on timesheets. She stated she believed the accountability could be fufilled. Clements stated he believed if timesheets aren’t being signed, the employee doesn’t get paid. Trask confirmed it is statutory (by definition, [of a criminal offense] carrying a penalty prescribed by statute).
Tobin asked one last question, addressed to the auditor and the deputy auditor, “how they gather the signatures on each timesheet.” Smith stated that the timesheets are pre-signed when submitted. “So missing the one signature every month, how do you guys handle that?” Tobin asked. “By the authority of the commission,” she said.
The commission entered into executive session for personnel at 2:15 p.m. and exited at 3:20 p.m. Following the executive session, it was approved to advertise for a full-time, certified deputy in the DOE office.
Custodian, Nancy Neville, submitted her notification of retirement and advertising for the custodian position was approved.
Following other agenda items the commission entered into executive session for personnel reasons at 4:22 p.m. and exited at 5:00 p.m.
Another item not specifically stated in the minutes, but vaguely mentioned, was the transition of the former DOE clerk to the Sheriff’s office as a part-time secretary.
The meeting adjourned at 5:45 p.m. Following the meeting, Smith reiterated to the commission how uncomfortable she was with the timesheet request. Smith and the commission were informed by Tobin that no public meeting discussion was allowed after the meeting was adjourned when a quorum is present. Refer to SDCL 1-25-1. Smith continued to speak on the topic of the timesheet and again requested the approval of the commission to approve the timesheet request due to her discomfort surrounding the request. Smith was again informed the topic should no longer be discussed and was addressed by Trask within the meeting, that the commission does not approve or deny a public records request.
The public is highly encouraged to attend public meetings.
Meeting minutes submitted by the Haakon County Auditor’s office can be found in the Public Notices section of this issue of the Pioneer Review.

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