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Commissioners Pekas, Barth Take Side of Justice in SDPAA Indian Intimidation

Last updated on 2013.09.01

...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.


  1. Rick 2013.09.02

    Two kinds of elected officials. One just wants the titles so they can be listed in their obituary and, while they are alive, worn like a badge of glory because they seek public approval. The other, far more rare, is the leader who uses the title to step up to bat and solve problems, provide a new vision and stand up for what is right and stand up against what is clearly wrong. Some in this second category don't necessarily wait to get permission via election to be a leader, because their primary response to evil is to step up and lead.

    There is no need to list names of real leaders who understood why they ran for office and didn't recoil in fear when called upon to step up for those who needed some heroes. The voting rights of poverty-stricken minorities has long been a critically important cause in American history, yet here we are 50 years after Martin Luther King's great speech and voting rights are still be attacked to prevent minorities from their rightful voice in American governance.

    Mike Huether got his calling to use his title as mayor of South Dakota's largest city to stop the bigots in Pierre from suppressing the votes of Native Americans in America's most poverty-stricken counties. He failed to step up. He recoiled behind his lawyer, but sent an email to remind us if we only knew where he came from, we might think more highly of him.

    I know where Huether came from. I also know where he invested his talents, helping T. Denny Sanford's notorious credit card corporation put Sanford in a league with the richest men in the world. Maybe Huether should check to see if he developed a spine and if he lost his heart.

    Maybe Huether can change his mind on this calling to lead. Maybe Huether can step up and invest his talent and his political capital to serve America's most poverty-stricken Americans in his home state. It's not like he's being asked to created millions of dollars for T. Denny Sanford again.

    If the Mayor of Sioux Falls was George McGovern, I'm pretty sure he would not recoil when asked to do the right thing.

  2. Roger Elgersma 2013.09.02

    When he was running for mayor Heuther said that he grew up in a poor neighborhood with native friends living across the street. His example of knowing and understanding the poor. He wants to bring other people into government and not just the old established croud. Now he is mayor and building grand events center that the poor probably can not afford to pay for out of their food tax dollars and not meeting with someone with a legitimate complaint. There are probably more things that we do not know that are affecting the situation. But it really does surprise me that he did not do more on this.

  3. Roger Cornelius 2013.09.02

    As I watched the coverage of the MLK 50th anniversay coverage on tv, I marveled at how far we have come as a nation with dealing with racism. And than as I continued to listenI realized how far South Dakota hasn't come.

    It is no wonder why Native Americans from South Dakota and beyond consider this state the new Alabama or Mississippi. As a Native American raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation voting has always been a challenge. From changing polling places, enrolling people in the wrong precincts and declaring registered voters dead

    And now in the year 2013 Jason Gant and the Republican Party continue to disenfranchise the already disenfranchised.

    If Heuther did in fact have special experiences and understanding of minorities, he would have the moral fortitude to fight in anyway he could to support the voting rights of Native Americans.

    The highlight of the speeches for me was President Clinton's "A great democracy doesn't make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon".

    Clearly, South Dakota Republican leadership does not understand "greatness".

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