A couple of different situations came up recently that inspired me to write this article to share my thoughts and opinions.  This is my opinion only, so take it as you will!  It concerns two people who are new to the Belle Fourche City Council in order to fill the vacancies due to two people resigning before their terms were finished.  One was appointed since he ran unopposed, and the other won a special election.

A question of conflict of interest came up with our newest Ward 4 city council member, Tricia Fowler, since it seems she’s related (I’m assuming by marriage) to a man who works in the public works department as the streets/water/sewer superintendent, Aaron Fowler.  Some don’t think a person should be allowed to run for a council seat if they’re related to someone who works for the city.  I understand this point of view as it seems it could potentially open the door to a lot of conflicts of interest, special treatment, special favors, etc.  My “rebuttal” or response to this is that I haven’t found any laws that specifically talk about this, except what I dug up in sdlegislature.gov about Nepotism under the Administrative Rules, which I don’t think pertains directly to a situation like this where one family member works for the city and the other is on the council in a capacity where, as I understand it, the one on the council isn’t directly managing the family member in a city department.  We also have a father/son duo on the city council and the mayor is the Godfather of the son and used to work for the father.  I mean… this is the epitome of small town politics! If you want to throw a political activist (in a sense) into this mix, it gets more spicy, because the father/son duo is my dad and brother and we don’t see eye-to-eye on key subjects in politics and I “rock the boat” on local issues.  We just can’t make up this kind of storyline!

So, with that said, there’s obvious ways where the city of Belle Fourche is potentially vulnerable to some level of corruption with such close ties in our local government.  In my opinion though, this ever-present vulnerability is a possible issue whether people in government are related or not and can happen anywhere in America if the checks and balances aren’t exercised.  To me, the number one checks/balances that should happen is someone such as a city councilman in Fowler’s position refraining from voting on anything pertaining to money for the public works department in a way her husband is directly involved or benefitting from it.  Like if he was going to get a raise, she shouldn’t vote. Simple as that.  A recent example of this in action was State Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, who is on the Appropriations Committee for the state, voting on the topic of giving state employees a raise.  Her husband is a circuit judge, therefore a state employee, and she voted yes for the raise, despite the obvious conflict of interest there.  Checks and balances exist but they aren’t practiced.  Back in 2021, our local government worked harder at covering for and protecting each other than ensuring local laws (pertaining to how they do their jobs) were followed in the best interest of the tax payers.  Our mayor, finance officer and city attorney spent a lot of energy trying to make a tax payer look like the bad guy rather than doing their jobs according to state law.  So, in a way, it’s like our local government becomes its own kind of family, and it seems they’d go to almost any length to protect each other from tax payers wanting accountability and transparency from the checks and balances that exist yet weren’t exercised.

When it comes to viewing our local government as its own kind of family that protects each other, I see this same kind of environment in practice with how our Ward 2 councilman, Lee Capp, acted put out that Silver Linings and the Chamber of Commerce were denied extra funding from the city recently.  Here’s the transcript from that exchange between him and Councilman Clark Sowers:

Capp:  …I’m voting no on this because of a couple of reasons. One is on sept 18 the council voted to give themselves a raise. During that discussion all I heard was that the council deserved it and they weren’t getting paid enough. On the next meeting on 9/26, we had allocations and it was decided that silver linings was getting 5,000 less than they asked for, and the chamber was getting 5,000 less than they asked for. These are non profit groups where mostly are people who volunteer their time and volunteer their efforts and money to promote our city and make our city better, and yet i didn’t hear one reason why these groups should not get the money they asked for or did not deserve this money. And so with those two reasons I cannot vote for a budget that puts money… I know the ordinance for the council raise is separate from the budget, but because of that in the midst of this, I’m voting no on the budget. I don’t think it’s morally correct if we, as councilman Sowers says, we hold the purse strings, we should not be dipping into the purse strings ourselves.

Clark Sowers: That wasn’t the only thing you heard that night. You also heard historical fact that when I was mayor 30 yrs ago, the mayor was getting paid $550 and councilmen were getting paid $350. That was almost 30 yrs ago. So there’s a just cause to pay the people doing the work here. Now, that being said, you know, we’ve given ourselves a raise. And like I said then, this is a pretty good council. And the city council and how it’s set up now is a lot more organized and there’s a lot more structure that demands our work. Now that being said, you’re going to get a paycheck too. And if you want to donate that to the chamber or to silver linings like councilman schmaltz does, that’s your prerogative. And that’s our prerogative to do with the paychecks that we get. But I can tell you like councilman sowers said, we aren’t overpaid, but i do expect that we will earn it. But if you want to donate your paycheck, you’re free to do that. And I know you’re working hard in earning it too. But it’s not wrong to pay your councilmen and we’re not overpaid compared to other communities.

Capp: My disagreement with the pay raise isn’t that it’s a pay raise, it’s the fact that we did it. It should be the citizens that do it, not us.

Clark Sowers: Well, they can refer it.

Capp: At any rate, that’s why I’m voting no.

This comes on the heels of the Chamber receiving county funds for the 2023 budget year when Capp was the Chamber president.  From what I was told, the Chamber needed financial help since they were losing memberships.  Rather than see how they can do better in gaining memberships and fix any weak points so the organization can continue to stand on its own two feet and be free from government funding so it can unbiasedly represent, promote, and lobby for the businesses that pay for them to do so, we see the Chamber receive a one time payment of $20,000 of your tax dollars from the county, of which Lee Capp’s wife is the newly appointed auditor, for the 2023-2024 budget year.  He then supports the actions from Silver Linings Senior Citizens Center and the Chamber asking for $5,000 extra in funding for the upcoming budget year from the city of Belle Fourche.  This kind of approach reeks of socialism to me.  The Daily Wire said it best: “Socialism suggests state ownership and control of all major resources…”  Is this why Capp believes it’s acceptable to expect the local government to fund all of these various organizations as needed? Does he see the state/local government owning and controlling everything instead of the tax payers? Does he see us only as serfs and piggy banks funding the “one big happy family” of local government?
My take away from the exchange between Capp and Sowers was:
– He seemed to contradict himself: he was fine with receiving a raise and said he had no problem with it, but felt the tax payers should decide that. However, he felt the tax payers didn’t need to decide on extra funding to these two organizations.
– Capp didn’t seem on board with donating his own paycheck the way other councilmen do, while he was upset that the city denied the extra funding.
– While he said he felt the tax payers should vote on giving the council a raise, he didn’t believe it necessary for tax payers to decide on whether the Chamber needed an extra $20 grand from the county…I, for one, would have appreciated a vote on that one.

So do the majority (not all, obviously. There’s good ones but are few and far between) of people in our government just see themselves as one big family who work to protect each other at all cost and live off some form of a “trust fund” (i.e. our tax dollars) that they can use and spend in any way they wish since they feel the state owns and controls all resources? Does this explain how people like Capp and Ager get into our government and seem to never leave to be productive members of our community and society, but seem to just stay in these various positions in government and we never see any kind of improvement in our counties or communities, despite higher taxes? Do we see higher taxes only to make their “trust fund” bigger for themselves? Is this mentality with politicians so deep-seated that they tend to stay in government their entire lives and become completely disconnected with the fact they’re living completely off of our tax money and NOT by any real job, business, etc? No wonder it seems like we can never gain traction on building a good bridge of communication and seeing eye-to-eye on things with our local officials.

To conclude, yes, corruption can invade a local government with or without relatives working in that same local government.  All that needs to happen is these individuals working to protect each other instead of holding each other accountable according to state law for the benefit of the people they work for: the tax payers who fund everything and everyone in our local government.  Remember that you have every right to see where your money is going and how it’s being spent, and it’s ok to speak up about it.  It’s also ok to speak up when you notice conflict of interest, such as politicians voting on anything to do with money where their relatives directly benefit from it.  To me, I’m 100% on board for giving our city council a raise, because they’ve shown us how hard they’re working to straighten out Belle Fourche and get it back on track.  They cut taxes by $100,000, started a savings fund for a new police department building, they’re getting much needed projects done around town and updating parks, sidewalks, etc. All while NOT raising taxes or our water bill and throwing us into more debt.

Stay engaged, involved, and be heard.  If you have questions, ask them! You’re a tax paying American citizen and your government needs you to oversee the operations you fund to ensure all is being run efficiently and for your welfare.