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Councilman Questions Planning Member's Past Wal-mart Vote

  • Council e-ban measure gains its first approval
    By Scott Aust
    Rapid City Journal, June 16th, 2008
    Straight to the Source

lderman Bill Okrepkie raised concerns Monday about the reappointment of Tom Hennies to the city planning commission because of Hennies' past vote against a proposed second Wal-Mart.

Okrepkie said 70 percent of constituents in Ward 3 voted two years ago in favor of building a Wal-Mart on the south side of the city. That project eventually fell apart for other reasons, but Okrepkie said Hennies' vote against the project as a member of the planning commission does not represent public sentiment.

"That's not in the best interest of my ward or the community," Okrepkie said.

Other Rapid City Council members said it was inappropriate for Okrepkie to single out Hennies for his position on one issue. The appointment, which was eventually approved, was part of a list of five appointments to the commission.

Alderman Karen Gundersen Olson said Okrepkie's comments "smacked of coercion" of the planning commission's ability to make an unbiased judgment about the Wal-Mart project.

"I think it's un-American," she said. "I don't think there should be any litmus test other than an applicant's honesty and integrity."

The project, now proposed for land on Highway 16 north of Catron Boulevard, has been continued several times and is being reviewed by a new out-of-state developer.

Alderman Ron Kroeger asked if Okrepkie had asked the four other planning commission appointees where they stand on Wal-Mart. Okrepkie's short answer was that he had not.

Kroeger said he thought it was wrong to single out Hennies for his vote on a single issue.

Hennies, who has been off the commission for about a year, did not attend Monday's council meeting.

In other business, the council gave initial approval to an ordinance banning members from communicating electronically during public meetings.

E-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, blogging and cell phone text-messaging would all be banned during public meetings under the ordinance. Ordinances require two separate votes before receiving final approval. The council will consider it again next month.

The ordinance was prompted by some council members' concern about the back-and-forth instant messaging between a few other council members during meetings and their concern that some of the communications involved requests to vote a certain way on issues.

Though no state laws cover electronic conversations by elected officials during meetings, some council members believe the use of instant messaging violates the spirit of open meetings because some discussion is hidden from the public.

If approved, the ordinance would apply to other boards within city government that are required to comply with open meetings law, such as the city planning commission.

The council is also considering establishing a new policy spelling out the appropriate use of the Internet, e-mail and computer use by city employees and elected officials.

The city's current policy limits employees' Internet and e-mail use to solely business purposes. Proposed new policies also would cover the appropriate use of city-owned telephones, cell phones, personal digital assistants and computers.

The council will discuss that issue, and consider final approval of the electronic communication ordinance, in July.

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