Conflict issue may soon be settled in Pierre

Conflict issue may soon be settled in Pierre by David Lias A conflict that first arose months ago during a Vermillion City Council may soon be settled once and for all by the South Dakota Legislature.

Both the state House and Senate have approved HB 1254, which states that certain citizens may not become ineligible for public service.

The bill, which was passed Feb. 24 by the Senate 21-13, would not allow any elected or appointed officials to have a direct financial interest as an individual or an agent in any contract with the body they represent.

It�s expected that Gov. William Janklow will either sign the bill into law, or do nothing which means the legislation will automatically be added to the state�s statutes.

Once that happens, there will supposedly be no reason to question whether it is proper for Vermillion aldermen Roger Kozak, Barb Yelverton and Frank Slagle, who are employed by The University of South Dakota, to participate in discussions and vote on issues relating to joint projects with Vermillion and the university.

�This bill really is for local officials, such as school board members, city council members, and county commission officials,� said District 17 Rep. Judy Clark of Vermillion, the House sponsor of the legislation. �This bill says, in essence, if you don�t have a direct financial interest in an issue that is being considered, there is no conflict.�

Such a question arose months ago during a Vermillion City Council meeting in which aldermen were discussing joint city � USD projects.

Aldermen Richard Burbach and Leo Powell, who are both associated with Clay-Union Electric Cooperative, noted they had been informed by City Attorney Martin Weeks that they couldn�t vote on issues involving the cooperative.

They questioned why Slagle, Kozak and Yelverton could vote on matters relating to city involvement with the university without there being no conflict of interest.

Those questions led to court action. The state of South Dakota served a summons to Kozak, Slagle, and Yelverton in late 1998. All three responded by filing legal documents with Clay County States Attorney Tami Bern.

Circuit Court Judge Arthur Rusch was scheduled to make a declaratory judgement by the end of this month to settle the issue.

The new legislation, Clark said, likely will mean that Powell and Burbach won�t have to worry about conflict of interest questions whenever the council addresses an issue relating to their employer.

The bill, she said, more carefully defines conflict of interest situations on local governing boards.

�It says that unless you are going to make money directly off of the action being considered by a governing board, there is no conflict of interest,� Clark said.

People shouldn�t be stopped from carrying out their duties on governing boards, she added, simply because they are employed by an entity that is involved with, for example, a joint project with local government, such as the city, school or county.

For example, she said, HB 1254 will provide added protection for Powell and Burbach should the city council have to deal with any more issues concerning Clay-Union Electric in the future.

The two men, she said, will be able to participate in the decision-making process in such instances.

�Before, everybody was at risk,� Clark said. �Someone has to define how remote the risk is before there is a conflict of interest.�

Clay County State�s Attorney Tami Bern said that, if signed into law, the legislation would put an end to the declaratory judgement issue.

�One of the requirements for a declaratory judgement is that there is a question of what the law is,� she said. �Once the amendment is enacted, there will be no question. It would become moot.�

Bern said that, to the best of her knowledge, there has been no indication that the governor won�t sign the bill. She added that citizens would still have other remedies if they question the actions of a governing board.

�This legislation wouldn�t preclude anyone from filing a taxpayer�s action,� she said. �If anyone was against some earlier action taken by the city council on the sale of the old golf course, for example, they could commence a taxpayer�s action seeking to void the contract.�

Bern said that after the bill becomes law, either she or the three defendants named in the declaratory judgement will need to make a motion to dismiss the court action.

�I haven�t discussed that with them (Slagle, Yelverton and Kozak) yet,� she said.

According to a spokesman for Janklow in Pierre, the legislation had yet to have reached the governor�s office on Monday for review. He noted that the governor has 15 days after the Legislature adjourns to consider signing the bill.

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