Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias Now that another legislative session has ended in Pierre, we�re getting hit with a barrage of press releases from certain special interests.

These groups, when not lobbying lawmakers in the state capitol, do a very good job of whining about how things didn�t go their way in the S.D. House and Senate � again.

The issues range from education to health care to agriculture.

We�ve decided to join the chorus. There�s one issue in particular that, when pitched to lawmakers, they conveniently dropped.

That issue is conflict of interest.

We�ll admit that the specifics of what was addressed in Pierre may not have great bearing on our community just yet. But we can�t feel that there�s great potential for trouble ahead � trouble that could have been averted if lawmakers had taken proper action.

It all started last December when the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that Rep. Carol Pitts, R-Brookings, cannot work at South Dakota State University as a nutrition, health and food safety specialist and also serve in the state House.

The court said that Pitts, by voting on last year�s state budget, was essentially approving her own salary.

If state lawmakers can suddenly find themselves in such a legal bind, we can�t help but wonder if this same logic applies to our local government officials.

In the 2000 general election, area voters elected Mary Jensen to the Clay County Commission.

In her first two years in office, she�s demonstrated that citizens made a good choice when they put a mark by her name at polling places.

She has a strong familiarity with the county. She knows its strengths and weaknesses. She knows its people. We believe she has a good handle on the overall �big picture� of what�s going on within Clay County�s borders.

In 1999, the county commission hired Jensen�s husband as the custodian of the Clay County Courthouse. And a unique agreement was forged. At times both of the Jensens were busy sweeping, mopping and dusting the hallways and offices of the courthouse.

It didn�t take long to realize they were on the job. The interior of the building has practically glittered for more than two years now.

Jensen�s election in 2000 didn�t throw the county commission into a panic. To the best of our knowledge, the fact that the custodian�s wife was now on the board that ultimately decided his salary annually was never a big issue.

Why? Because there really hasn�t been any conflict. Her position as a county commissioner has, to the best of our knowledge, had no undue influence over the total household income of the Jensens.

And the Jensens� involvement with Clay County since 1999 has been nothing but a win-win situation for local citizens.

Jensen has proven to be a productive addition to the commission.

Her husband continues to polish the courthouse until it practically glows.

Follow the letter of the law, however, and one can�t help but wonder if local government officials may one day find themselves in the same quandary as Pitts.

Pitts, reasoning that voters wanted her to serve in Pierre, had to make a difficult choice before this year�s legislative session began.

She chose to heed the wishes of the electorate. She went to Pierre to serve in the state House.

It meant ending her career at SDSU.

Could Jensen�s tenure on the county commission one day jeopardize her husband�s job? Will someone, at some point, reason that Jensen, like Pitts, is approving her household�s income every time she votes for the county budget?

We hope this won�t happen. As the old saying goes, good help is hard to find.

The county commission and the public at large are currently benefitting from the excellent service offered by the Jensens.

We�re prone to think that there are other cities and counties across South Dakota with similar situations that, one day, could be defined as a conflict of interest.

We hope state lawmakers will do a better job of addressing this issue should it ever arise again.

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