Walworth County government is running poorly this year. They started the year with multiple resignations, and the county commission failed to follow their state’s attorney James Hare’s guidance on following the law in replacing one of those positions. The commission and the Walworth County auditor, Rebecca Krein, and have also ignored the state’s attorney’s guidance on open meetings and refused to place some citizen concerns on their agenda. The citizen so rebuffed, Linda Beaman, complained at a May 21 meeting that the countyw as breaking open records laws:
Beaman then questioned the commission’s compliance with state law 1-27-1.16, which notes that materials relating to the open meeting agenda items are to be made available on the county’s website 24 hours before the meeting or that at least one copy of the materials be provided in the meeting room and open to anyone’s inspection while the commission considers the material.
That law has not been followed, she said.
Krein said during the meeting that the materials would be available upon request. But Hare noted that state law requires the materials to be available during the meeting, even if not requested by anyone.
Krein then said that such materials will be available in future meetings.
“That’s all you had to say,” Hare said [Shannon Marvel, “Woman Not Allowed on Walworth Co. Commission Agenda Questions Chairman,” Aberdeen American News, 2019.05.31].
When Beaman brought further concerns to a July 25 meeting about auditor Krein also holding the full-time position of landfill manager and doing both jobs poorly, Walworth County Commissioner Kevin Holgard threatened to take Beaman to court for harassment.
But now it’s auditor Krein who’s headed to court: she’s been arrested for violating SDCL 1-27-1.16 by failing to provide printed meeting materials to the public on August 6:
The warrant for Krein’s arrest, issued by request of Walworth County State’s Attorney Jamie Hare, states the violation occurred on Aug. 6.
Hare said he had received a complaint that the requests from individuals for the printed materials was denied by Krein.
“I don’t understand why we just can’t cooperate with these people,” Hare said on Tuesday. “I got tired of hearing the complaints and the auditor’s office not doing what is required and doing what they wanted to.”
Hare said he was tired of getting complaints about agendas not getting posted on time, videos of the meetings not be available to the public in a timely manner and not providing the proper documentation to the public.
“We are here to have open government,” said Hare. “She did not provide the information required by statutory law and I got tired of the complaints” [Katie Zerr, “Walworth County Auditor Arrested on Misdemeanor,” Mobridge Tribune, 2019.10.17].
Editor Zerr says open records are vitally important but feels Hare’s action against Krein is just one more expression of an ongoing “Peyton Place” atmosphere in Selby:
I have had my run-ins with the Walworth County Auditor’s office about the availability of information. Krein was a deputy auditor in an office that clung to information like it was a national secret. It was her background to deny requests because that was the atmosphere of the office when she was learning her job. Had the open meetings commission been in play during that reign there may have been more serious repercussions from this office.
As the open meetings laws developed, the fierce protection of information lessened and the flow of information improved.
But now what is going on at the courthouse seems to have less to do with information availability and more to do with power plays. Krein has the power of the purse, Hare has the power of the law and the public has the power of the vote. One only needs to watch videos of the meetings in the past six months to understand what is going on during the meetings. It is clear in the tone of voice, the body language and atmosphere.
Hare said his push for the commission to comply with the requests of the public fell on deaf ears and Krein’s office did not comply, forcing him to have her arrested.
That seems more like teaching her a lesson rather than a need to protect the public. The “I am tired of people complaining” reason given by Hare seems like he is throwing his hands up and falling to the constant badgering of some taxpayers.
I am inclined to view this arrest as a mistake on all levels [Katie Zerr, “A Lesson or a Power Play? Neither Is Right,” Mobridge Tribune, 2019.10.17].
The Associated Press gets a couple of professors to say that arresting a public official for breaking the law is excessive:
Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and media law at the University of Minnesota and was a longtime director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said arrests are “very, very rarely used” in cases where public officials don’t comply with open-records laws. She also said they’re unlikely to be effective.
“I’ve never been sold on the idea that this is a great way to terrorize government officials into following the law,” she said.
Sandy Davidson, an attorney who taught communications law at the University of Missouri, said few states even allow criminal charges in such cases and called the prospect “more theoretical than real.” She said the charges amount to “an extreme form of public shaming” [“Official Arrested Accused of Breaking Open Records Law,” AP via Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2019.10.18].
Did I miss the memo declaring that public officials should no longer experience shame for breaking the law? Publicly shaming elected officials for breaking the law is moral, necessary, and effective, even, sometimes, against the most shameless and corrupt of elected officials. We don’t hesitate to arrest and shame run-of-the-mill hoodlums on the street who wave shotguns and vandal murals. Why should elected officials not face cuffs and guff for violating the public trust?
I hesitate to contradict editor Zerr’s clear-eyed view of her local politics. There may well be all sorts of unreported personal drama behind the turmoil in Walworth County government. But no soap-opera details contradict the apparent fact that auditor Rebecca Krein and other elected officials in Walworth County have shown contempt for law. Arrest and public shaming are appropriate responses to this contempt.
Related Stifling of Public Participation: Following Krein’s arrest, Walworth County Commission chairman Scott Schilling announced that he will be restricting public comments during the statutorily required public forum period to items on the commission’s agenda. Whatever’s happening in Walworth County, commissioners clearly don’t want to talk about anything other than their chosen issues.