Doing the public’s business in public

It has been said that the news media provides the first draft of history.

That role becomes more difficult to fulfill if there are people or things that impede that process.

Such was the case this week in Belle Fourche during a hearing which would determine the future of the Historic Roosevelt Events Center, formerly known as the Old Roosevelt High School.

We appreciate the city hosting a public appeal hearing on the issue, but were concerned at the strong-armed tactics of the proceeding’s stenographer, Carolyn Harkins, of Rapid City.

We believed the hearing was a public meeting as an extension of the Belle Fourche City Council. It came to a hearing because the building’s owners, James and Provatia Pietila, with Pietila Property & Repair, LLC, appealed the city’s Oct. 9 condemnation of the historic building. The city claimed the building was in decrepit condition, and that the city has an obligation to protect the members of the public, leaving it with no choice but to condemn the building. 

The greater Belle Fourche public took to social media following the Black Hills Pioneer’s publication of a story about the condemnation, venting their contempt about the city’s decision, many claiming the city was not only being unaccommodating to but also bullying the Pietilas who were just trying to save a piece of Belle Fourche history. 

Between 30-40 community members attended Tuesday’s hearing, to witness the city and the Pietilas argue their cases in front of a five-member appeals committee appointed by the city. 

At one point in the hearing, Harkins realized that Pioneer reporter Lacey Peterson was recording the event. The Pioneer is the designated official legal newspaper of record for Belle Fourche and Butte County.

After strongly objecting to the recording, Harkins pressed the city attorney, the attorney assisting the board, and the board to ask Peterson to stop.

She claimed that her transcripts were the “official” record and that nobody else needed to record alleging that it could cause an “issue” if the hearing’s decision were later appealed to the circuit court. 

Peterson continued her recording.  

According to South Dakota Codified Law 1-25-11, “No public body may prevent a person from recording, through audio or video technology, an official meeting as long as the recording is reasonable, obvious, and not disruptive.”

Why is it important that the press be allowed to record open meetings and public hearings? The open meeting laws in our state embody the principle that the public is entitled to the greatest possible information about public affairs being carried about by elected officials. The law applies to all public bodies of the state or its political subdivisions. The public’s business should be done in public, affording as many community members as possible the information necessary to make their own opinions about a given topic.

That is the integral role of a community newspaper. Our news reporters are present at those meetings involving the city council, county commission, and school boards encompassed in the area, recording the decisions being made by elected officials and accurately informing the public. 

When members of the public are unable to attend a meeting themselves, the newspaper works as a conduit, supplying the public with information that could have a direct impact on their lives. In essence, we work for the public.

The more people who have access to accurate news, the better they can formulate their own opinion. In order for members of the press to supply the most accurate news, recording devices are regularly used. 

In this instance, there were efforts to stifle the recording of the meeting and general coverage of its outcome.

The city of Belle Fourche, who facilitated the hearing, financed the stenographer in question. And when given the opportunity to uphold the press’ legal right to record a public meeting, both the city attorney and the attorney representing the board, backed the stenographer’s request to ask the press to discontinue recording the hearing.

The Pioneer has filed an open meetings violation complaint related to this instance.

It should not require a formal complaint — or a reminder from the newspaper — to get a city council or other public body to obey the law.

Editorial Board,

Black Hills Pioneer 

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