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Belle Fourche Chamber President Resigns; Chamber Plans Referendum

The Black Hills Pioneer leads coverage of the Belle Fourche brouhaha with the headline that Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Otterman has resigned from the Chamber board. I've met Otterman; he's a smart, decent guy, and the Chamber will be worse off without him. Otterman says that the ugly battle between the Chamber and the short-sighted, power-gaming city council (those are my adjectives, not his) poses too much of a conflict with his role as a community-building Lutheran pastor.

But Otterman's retreat to his pastoral duties may not be the main story here. Scroll down 15 grafs into Kaylee Tschetter's story, and we get to the fun part about the Chamber gearing up to refer to a public vote the city's decision to boot the Chamber from the visitor's center:

[Chamber exec Teresa] Schanzenbach said that in the months ahead, chamber officials will be focusing on their financial situation and setting forth a petition for a municipal referendum to petition the city council’s decision. That process starts when the city council approves the minutes of their last meeting during which the city evicted the chamber from its current location.

...“We had a special meeting on Thursday and the board stated that we should proceed with the referendum,” Schanzenbach said. “We will be working on a referendum and the petitions will be ready to sign as of Tuesday, Oct. 22. We have 20 days to get the referendum petition done” [Kaylee Tschetter, "Otterman Resigns as Chamber President," Black Hills Pioneer, 2013.10.15 ].

Schanzenbach says petitoners can put the city's Chamber eviction to a vote with fewer than 60 signatures. 60?! Let's check those numbers:

  • When some Belle Fourchers rumbled about recalling their mayor in 2009, they would have needed signatures from 15% of registered voters.
  • The press at that time reported that equaled 501 signatures.
  • Municipal referendum requires signatures of only 5% of registered voters.
  • If voter registration numbers are similar to what they were four years ago, a Belle Fourche referendum requires 167 signatures.

I may be missing something here, but the Chamber might want to drop by the Butte County Courthouse and have Auditor Elaine Jensen give them another count.

The Chamber will also want to be ready for the argument I'm sure the city will make to avoid having to make its petty case at the polls, that their vendetta against the Chamber is an administrative, not legislative, decision and thus is not referrable. If you recall the brief referendum push in Madison this summer over the new property tax road fee, you'll recall that, under SDCL 9-20-19, citizens can refer new city ordinances and policies but cannot refer decisions relating to staffing and supervision of programs. Here's the motion in question from the October 7, 2013, meeting:

Motion Mateer, second Hays that the operation of the Visitor's Center in 2014 be placed under the direction of an existing city department; and that the allocation of up to $78,000 be added to that department's 2014 budget. Also, as the services of the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce will no longer be necessary for operation of the Visitor's Center, we ask that they vacate the building by April 11, 2014. Motion carried [Belle Fourche City Council, unapproved meeting minutes, 2013.10.07].

I love a good referendum, but that motion is looking supervisory and administrative to me. Legal eagles in the audience, what do you think? Will Belle Fourche get to vote on its city council's vendetta against the Chamber? Or will the Chamber need to fight its battle on a different field... like the next city council election?


  1. FireBreathingDragon 2013.10.17

    Great article and what a mess the city has created. They probably have killed the chamber of commerce.

  2. FireBreathingDragon 2013.10.17

    I also wonder if the new businesses coming into Belle Fourche might think twice about a city that can't find common ground with its own, might not be a place to live and grow.

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