...Mayor Huether disappoints with legalisms.
The South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance insures nearly 400 county, city, and other local governments. SDPAA is using its publicly funded clout to squeeze impoverished Lakota neighbors and intimidate uppity Indian voters who would dare fight for their voting rights.
Voting rights advocate O.J. Semans thinks the local officials using your money to pay for SDPAA's voter intimidation should speak up. The Four Directions exec has been contacting SDPAA members, explaining the dismissed Brooks v. Gant lawsuit that has provoked the SDPAA's venom, and asking officials to help get their insurer off the Indian plaintiffs' backs.
Semans spoke to the Minnehaha County Commission Tuesday. The commission isn't sure if it has the legal authority to tell the SDPAA what to do (it probably doesn't, though they could sure as heck pull their money and seek an insurer who respects Indian voting rights). But two commissioners said they're sure that Semans is right and SDPAA is wrong:
“I absolutely agree with you in every sense of the word,” Commissioner John Pekas told Semans. “I don’t think they should go for costs, personally.”
Commissioner Jeff Barth added that “there is a mentality to try to discourage participation in the political process. I’m not sure the insurance company is doing this on their own behalf. There may be other forces suggesting they do this.”
...Pekas, a lawyer, told Semans that based on his professional experience he thinks there is virtually no chance U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier would award costs to the assurance alliance.
“You guys won your case,” Pekas said [Peter Harriman, "West River Dispute Touches Minnehaha," that Sioux Falls paper, 2013.08.28].
Kudos to Commissioners Pekas and Barth for clear legal and moral thinking!
Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether's moral compass, alas, does not point nearly so surely toward truth. Semans asked the mayor for the opportunity to meet and discuss the SDPAA's voter intimidation. Mayor Huether had city attorney Dan Pfiefle decline for him, saying city officials can't make public statements about pending litigation.
Hmm... that didn't stop Commissioners Pekas and Barth from saying black is black. And the Mayor's legalistic concerns don't seem to affect what Semans actually requested, which was not a definite public statement from anyone but a chance to meet with Mayor Huether to discuss the issue. Mayor Huether evaded that discussion.
Disappointed at that evasion, Semans wrote back directly to Mayor Huether the day after what he considered a useful conversation with the Minnehaha County Commission. Framing the issue in the context of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Semans made a more direct appeal for action (I quote lengthily, because Semans writes here with forceful eloquence):
Although it appears the City of Sioux Falls decided to take a legal approach versus a moral approach to the issue, I am not giving up on my attempt to create a dialogue with you:
The South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance is asking to recover fees from the Plaintiffs in Brooks v. Gant, a voting rights case. The city of Sioux Falls is a member of the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance (SDPAA). Sioux Falls has two city employees serving as members of the SDPAA Board of Directors. The City of Sioux Falls, as a member of SDPAA, is a voting member and has a right to question SDPAA actions if the City believes the actions of the SDPAA are not in the best interests of the citizens of Sioux Falls and the State of South Dakota. As the holder of the highest office - in the largest city - of the most populated and economically vital county in South Dakota - and the most significant government entity member of the SDPAA, surely your opinion, should you choose to express an opinion on this issue, carries weight. As Mayor, you have the authority, and I would argue the obligation, to question and disavow the actions of SDPAA towards the Plaintiffs in Brooks v. Gant.
Remaining silent and hiding behind a corporate barricade or suggesting that legal concerns necessitates an arms length dismissal is not an option for people of good will on issues of voting rights and racial equality.
I hope you will reconsider your decision and agree to speak with me on this issue. I believe democracy requires the participation of all citizens, and even if the right to equal opportunities to vote for Indians in Shannon County seems far removed from the business of Sioux Falls City Hall, as South Dakotans we are bound together, and we fail or succeed together [O.J. Semans, e-mail to Mayor Mike Huether, 2013.08.28].
Dang! Semans for Secretary of State! Or Governor! Or some dang thing!
Mayor Huether agrees that Semans is eloquent. The Mayor said so in an e-mail he himself wrote back to Semans at the end of that workday. But he still insisted that he can't make public statements about pending litigation. He still avoided addressing why he wouldn't meet with Semans to discuss the issue and what non-public pressure might be brought to bear on SDPAA.
And evidently taking Semans' request as personal criticism, Mayor Huether fired off all sorts of words asserting his diversity cred:
I am incredibly passionate about embracing diversity and tackling the issues and opportunities within it. If you only knew my background, you would understand why. You can challenge the City’s handling of this matter, but please be cautious in attacking my personal beliefs and support in helping folks regardless of race, creed or color [Mayor Mike Huether, e-mail to O.J. Semans, 2013.08.28].
I could quote more Huether text in this vein, but I won't because it's mostly irrelevant. Semans didn't ask Huether to play his harp; he asked him for a chance to talk about the legal and moral travesty the city's insurer is carrying out and that the city might have some clout to stop. Huether said a lot, but he didn't say the right words: "Let's talk, and if we can, let's fix this."
(And just a rhetorical note, Mike: don't waste anyone's time with a claim that starts with "If you only knew...." If your argument hinges on background that you leave to our imaginations, you don't have an argument.)
Huether's neighbors John Pekas and Jeff Barth had no problem saying Minnehaha County's insurer is up to no good. More public officials and customers of the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance should do the same. Mayor Huether, join them and make clear that you don't want your taxpayers to be party to SDPAA's effort to punish fellow South Dakotans who have to go to court to fight for their rights.