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Pennington County Republicans demand representation

PIERRE, S.D. – Some Pennington County Republicans are voicing frustration over Gov. Kristi Noem’s decision to wait on a South Dakota Supreme Court opinion about conflicts of interest before filling two vacant seats in the state legislature.

Meanwhile, the Governor’s Office says Noem’s hands are tied.

With a dwindling number of days left before lawmakers convene in Pierre to craft and vote on new laws, the resignations of Sen. Jessica Castleberry and Rep. Jess Olson, both Republicans from Rapid City, have left their legislative districts without complete representation.

Castleberry resigned following a Noem administration-led investigation into her receipt of about $600,000 in COVID-related financial assistance for her preschool, a move seen as a violation of conflict-of-interest laws. Castleberry inked a settlement with the state to repay the $500,000 of the money that did not directly benefit families.

Olson cited health reasons for her resignation, but her business’s state contracts have also been scrutinized. These incidents have sparked a statewide debate over what constitutes a conflict of interest for state legislators.

Noem issued an executive order in August to make clear that state contracts must include language acknowledging conflict-of-interest laws. However, she has decided not to appoint replacements for Castleberry and Olson until the state Supreme Court provides clarity on conflict-of-interest laws – a topic the justices have taken up at Noem’s request.

Noem’s decision on appointments means that Districts 34 and 35, which cover parts of Pennington County, may not have complete representation when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 9.

Without full representation

Local Republican party members have expressed concern that the lack of representation could disadvantage their districts.

Amy Wagner, chair of the Pennington County Republican Party Central Committee, said she understands Noem’s position,  but thinks “it’s very concerning” nonetheless.

Six legislative districts include parts of Pennington County, which has a population of well over 100,000. Three of those districts do not include any areas outside the county. Castleberry and Olson represented two of them, covering the eastern and western parts of Rapid City and the majority of the citizens in the quickly growing city of Box Elder.

“That’s a lot of people without representation,” Wagner said.

Ken Straatmeyer is a Pennington County precinct committeeman. He will not be happy if his county goes into the upcoming legislative session without full representation.

“There needs to be something there that facilitates representation for us,” he said. “I mean, look how long we’ve been waiting.”

Castleberry stepped down on Aug. 18. A press release from the Governor’s office said to email the office with nominations or applications by Sept. 18.

“I get bureaucracy turns slow, but this needs to be addressed,” Straatmeyer said.

The Governor’s office has previously said it is in the process of interviewing potential candidates for these seats, with the hope that the court’s decision will allow for swift appointments. But with no clear timeline for the ruling, frustration is mounting among Pennington County’s Republican constituents.

Wagner said the county committee sent Noem multiple suggestions for appointments to fill the void.

Lynn Kading, another Pennington County precinct committeeman, said he finds it “kind of crazy” that the Noem administration is the cause of Castleberry’s resignation, the Supreme Court’s advisory opinion request and the county’s lack of representation.

“I think the Governor should appoint someone right away,” Kading said. “Stop listening to the political hacks and listen to the people.”

Pennington County precinct committeewoman Karli Healey thinks what’s driving the two seats from being filled “stems from the internal fractures” within the Republican party.

The state’s Republican party is essentially broken into two factions, she said: the long-established state Republican party – which she said includes Gov. Noem – and anti-establishment Republican outsiders.

“The special interest groups who control the legislature of course want someone from the establishment in there,” she said. “But Noem knows she’ll take flak in Pennington County if she appoints another member of the Pierre swamp.”

Noem’s Office responds

Noem spokesperson Ian Fury, said her position is made clear in a court brief recently filed from her office to the Supreme Court. That document intends to clarify what the administration wants the court to answer.

“The Governor should not make a constitutional appointment if doing so violates another constitutional provision,” the document says. Therefore, not having a clear definition of what violates the conflict-of-interest provision makes any appointment improper.

One candidate who filed to fill the void “withdrew their application due to both potential concerns of a conflict under [state constitutional law] and the present delay,” the document says.

“It cannot be known how many interested, qualified citizens have not even applied because of uncertainty about their own perceived or actual conflict, choosing not to risk unintentionally violating the Constitution,” it reads. “Necessary to the Governor’s consideration of any candidate must be an inquiry into whether the candidate is qualified and eligible for the appointment, possesses the skills to accomplish the job for their constituents, and whether a direct or indirect conflict of interest exists.”

State Court Public Information Officer Alisa Bousa said the state Supreme Court does not have a timeline for the decision and did not speculate on how long it may take.

Pennington County temporarily went without full representation just last year after Senator Julie Frye-Meuller was suspended from the capital over comments made to a Legislative Research Council staffer. 

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