Author Archives: Bob Mercer

About Bob Mercer

Bob Mercer is a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News and four other separately owned newspapers: the Black Hills Pioneer, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Mitchell Daily Republic and the Watertown Public Opinion. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish and Pierre papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the five papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

The banners in the Avon gym

The story told on Wednesday night was the state Public Utilities Commission originally planned to hold its public input hearing regarding the Prevailing Winds permit application at the Avon fire hall. Chris Nelson, the commission’s chairman, thought a larger room would be needed because of the strong opinions in the community, on all sides, about the proposed wind farm. The decision came weeks ago that the hearing site should be the Avon school gym. In the half hour before the 6:30 p.m. meeting, people streamed in, eventually filling the south bleachers all six rows deep and using all of the folding chairs that waited as stand-by seating. They spoke for more than three hours, sometimes in tears. It’s difficult to tell at such a forum whether more people were for or against. It wasn’t hard to tell the community cared very much about its past and about its future. Caring was the common denominator.

There wasn’t any disruption of people’s comments. Sometime in the second hour, audience members began clapping at the end of a speaker’s comments. Both sides then did this. There weren’t any signs. Nor were there any protestors outside the gym. As far as one could see, people simply were polite to one another, even though opinions ran strong in the crowd of some 300 people.

What stood out as well was the gym. The wooden parquet floor shined a natural gold. Names of local businesses and other supporters were painted along the school-red boundary to the court. On an end wall a display held the names of the sponsors of the floor-restoration project from about 20 years ago. Overhead hung two rows of banners, celebrating championships and strong finishes in state tournaments, including the South Dakota titles won in girls volleyball and nine-man football. To say the school has an impressive record in athletics during the past 15 years would be an understatement. The title banners included the names of the players, coaches and student managers. You could see how this small place launched Tom Oster from superintendent of the school district to state secretary of education for the final three years of Gov. Rounds’ administration.

One of the concerns in the crowd on Wednesday night was that the community could be permanently divided over a wind project within sight north of town. This visitor wondered whether the gym would feel the same in the future, as a place of pride in a community’s young people, to the hundreds of people who went to the PUC meeting. The floor will still be there. The banners will still be there. The test ahead is whether the communal pride can still be there, whether the possibility of 100 white wind towers will or won’t overwhelm the bond, the tradition, of the red and gold.

An incident in North Dakota along pipeline route

As the numbers of tribal peoples increase at the Cannonball protest site, and work continues to be stopped on the permitted project, there is a report on file with the North Dakota Public Service Commission (the kin of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission) regarding a report of a possible grave site along the Dakota Access pipeline route in Morton County, N.D. The official report to the PSC is worth reading. It is here. Upon further investigation, officials determined there wasn’t substance to it. However, the incident also showed that the process for handling discoveries worked, at least in this instance.

The pipeline route, which runs through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, required permits in all four states. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers participated with the state regulators in their permitting processes. The South Dakota process included interaction with the corps. The key documents involving the corps are here. (Go to near the bottom of the long list.) For what it’s worth, only two tribal governments participated in the South Dakota permitting process. They were the Yankton Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. During the hearing by the state Public Utilities Commission, the corps didn’t seem overly involved. Perhaps the questions from the lawyers representing the two tribal governments and from other organizations opposed to the project helped better focus attention. The corps documents were issued in July. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation covers parts of North Dakota and South Dakota, didn’t participate in the South Dakota permitting process. The Cannonball protest is on the North Dakota side of the reservation.

An interesting procedural twist regarding the protest is the 12-month requirement for Dakota Access to complete its work under the corps’ conditions. Because all of its pipe has been delivered, it seems unlikely DAPL will give up. And because the protest seems to be gaining momentum among tribal peoples beyond the Dakotas, it seems unlikely the protest will end any time soon. Construction is continuing elsewhere along the pipeline. Federal District Judge James Boasberg, from Washington, D.C., has set Sept. 9 for his ruling on the work-stoppage injunction brought by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. There is little question the losing side will appeal, regardless of which side it is. The heart of the work-stoppage injunction is the threat of oil polluting the Missouri River where the pipeline would cross under the river downstream from Bismarck. Those waters are at the top of the Oahe Reservoir, most of which is in South Dakota.

A big year for SDHSAA starts today

The South Dakota High School Activities Association begins a year of major transition today with the annual strategy meeting for its board of directors. This will be the final school year with Wayne Carney as executive director for the association and selecting his successor is a giant responsibility for the directors. The chairman for the board during this year of change is veteran high school principal and educator Steve Morford of Spearfish. Take a look at today’s agenda and you’ll get a sense of the board’s continuing efforts to bring more transparency and order to its processes. The agenda and a live audio link are at the association’s website on the Internet. Wayne Carney performed well in building a stable financial base for the association. Because of the association’s system for selecting its board, who are subject to a limit of one term, the executive director has been greatly responsible for setting direction and processes. That’s gradually changed in the past few years, after some missteps that riled school district officials in some instances over money and policy. The Legislature stepped in with the decision that SDHSAA meetings needed to be subject to South Dakota’s open-meeting laws just as school districts are. That’s led to meetings now being live-cast on the Internet for the benefit of all school districts and all South Dakotans. The procedural discussion today on the use of first and second readings is another example of the changes made in recent years. The board holds its regular business meeting on Thursday.

GOED’s new leader starts next week

Scott Stern, best known in South Dakota for his past work in the family petroleum-products business at Freeman, starts Monday as commissioner of economic development for Gov. Dennis Daugaard. He replaces Pat Costello of Sioux Falls, who was the original head of GOED in Daugaard’s administration, serving from 2011 through June 30 this year. Costello now works in a management position for Schoeneman;s Lumber in Sioux Falls, according to Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s chief of staff. Aaron Scheibe, the deputy commissioner, has served in an interim role as commissioner since Costello’s departure. Scheibe recently briefed state Board of Economic Development members about the transition and reported that GOED staff have been working with Stern in preparation for his official start.

The trains now must run without Carl

Carl Anderson of Aberdeen submitted his resignation from the South Dakota Railroad Board over the weekend in a letter to its chairman, Todd Yeaton of Highmore. Carl participated in his final meeting Aug. 19, via teleconference, as he has increasingly needed to do for health reasons. Carl and Todd had been the two longest-serving members of the Railroad Board, whose duties are to oversee South Dakota’s state-owned rail lines and make loans to rail projects. They were appointed in 2003 by then-Gov. Mike Rounds and subsequently reappointed by Rounds and Gov. Dennis Daugaard. One keepsake from the Carl Anderson era that will remain with the board are a gavel and a sound block that the chairman uses.  Read the letter here.

DENR’s complaint on failed Wasta oil well

For your reading pleasure, below is the link for the notice of violation the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued, at the direction of the state Board of Minerals and Environment, against Quartz Operations regarding the oil well attempted near Wasta. The well remains uncapped three years later. The state board issued the permit despite widespread professional doubt about the project’s likelihood of success. The well wasn’t completed after the drill apparatus broke deep in the hole. This matter might come to a head Nov. 17 at a board hearing, if the company doesn’t fulfill its obligation.

Wasta Notice of Violation

Company’s response



After 42 years, Harry Christianson retires

Harry Christianson wore many clients’ badges throughout his career as a lawyer in South Dakota. He was part of the original Bill Janklow crew in the state attorney general’s office and the first Janklow administrations as governor. He moved into legislative lobbying and spent 30 years at it. During the 2016 legislative session he told friends it definitely would be his last. Along the way he found fortune as a businessman in video lottery terminal and Deadwood casino ownership, knowing when to leave the table while ahead. Once the gambling ownership was behind him, his expertise went to work again for state government. He was appointed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard in March 2011 to the state Commission on Gaming, the panel that oversees Deadwood casinos and horse and dog racing. Daugaard reappointed him in 2014. Now he has resigned from that appointment before his term concluded on April 15, 2017. He said he had two regular commission meetings left to serve and wouldn’t be able to attend them because he planned to be traveling. Rather than ask the commission to rearrange its schedule, he decided it was simpler to step down. Appointed as his replacement is Karl Fischer of Fort Pierre, who previously received three appointments to the commission from then-Gov. Mike Rounds in 2003, 2006 and 2009. Rounds and Fischer were long-time business partners in the Fischer Rounds & Associates insurance and real estate agency in Pierre.

The gaming commission is in a period of transition this summer. Karen Wagner of Belle Fourche was appointed to replace Dennis Duncan of Parker, and Michael Wordeman of Rapid City was named to replace Ralph Kemnitz of Philip. The panel’s two other members are Dennis McFarland of Sioux Falls, who was appointed in 2015, and Tim Holland of Custer, a 2012 appointee.

While Harry says he is done with state government after 42 years of involvement, the Christiansons as a couple aren’t entirely out of the picture. Barb Christianson recently accepted reappointment to the state’s Career Service Commission. How far back does their story go? They met while she was working in then-Gov. Dick Kneip’s office. Now Harry has decided it’s time. The sunsets await.

Yet another fight brewing on Dakota Plains project

Turns out the designers of the Dakota Plains rail yard project at Napa need some extra space and the project’s backers want a 20-foot strip of right of way that would come from the state-owned Napa-Platte line. The South Dakota Railroad Board decided at its previous meeting it wanted some other ideas. The board meets Wednesday and now a businessman who serves on another state panel is weighing in. He is Ralph Marquardt of Yankton, who is a member of the state Transportation Commission. This is a sticky situation, because Marquardt is rebuilding a grain-loading stop at Tabor that is along the Napa-Platte line. He sent a letter to the Railroad Board asking that he receive special treatment too if Dakota Plains gets its 20 feet. A copy of the letter is at the bottom of the meeting packet here. Dakota Plains just went through a struggle over its electricity provider before the state Public Utilities Commission that ended with the project receiving juice from both Northwestern Energy and the local rural-electric cooperative.

Tapio help for Trump could be big in ’18

With Democrats evidently having given up on legislative contests in District 5 covering Watertown and Codington County, Republican Neal Tapio of Watertown appears to be an auto-winner for the Senate seat. (He beat incumbent Rep. Roger Solum of Watertown in the Republican primary to succeed Sen. Ried Holien, R-Watertown, who’s since been chosen as South Dakota’s man on the Republican National Committee.) During the primary, one of the theories about Tapio’s candidacy was that he needed a win for some public office in order to run for the U.S. House of Representatives down the road. With the possibility strong that U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem will be a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018, the U.S. House seat could be open for the first time since 2004. That would be an opportunity for Tapio, who moved back to Watertown in advance of his legislative run. Why mention this now? On Thursday, Tapio announced on his Facebook account that he was now the South Dakota chairman for the Trump-Pence presidential campaign. That means Tapio gets from now until at least the day after the November general election to talk to South Dakotans, especially Republican activists who would be important in a 2018 U.S. House primary. His experiences in the Trump campaign also would give him built-in credentials on the Republicans’ Lincoln Day county dinner circuit during the coming year. The Lincoln Day dinners are the testing grounds for Republican candidates. We don’t know whether Secretary of State Shantel Krebs also would be a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. House in 2018, or whether the two Republicans who lost to Noem in 2010′s primary, state Sen. Blake Curd of Sioux Falls and Public Utilities Commission chairman Chris Nelson, might choose to run again. But Tapio’s selection as Trump’s state chairman is a big bonus at least among the Fox News viewers in South Dakota. On a final note, the other surprise about the selection of Neal Tapio is that no one else apparently had been serving in that role in South Dakota. (Let me know if there was a prior SD chairman.) Donald Trump, by the way, won South Dakota’s Republican primary in June with 67 percent of the vote. And if Trump wins this November nationally, what better argument for a Congressman Tapio than a direct connection to the new president.

Lucas-Peterson and Randall candidacies add spice

Their local political organizations tapped two very smart political veterans to fill slots on the November general election ballot for legislative seats representing the Sioux Falls area. Sue Lucas-Peterson became the Republicans’ choice to replace Rep. Steve Westra on the ballot after the House Republican assistant leader withdrew. Lucas-Peterson is a past vice chairwoman of the South Dakota Republican Party and her spouse is former Rep. Bill Peterson, who was House Republican leader. She’ll be running for one of the two House seats representing District 13, where the remaining incumbent is Republican Mark Mickelson. Their Democratic opponents are Ellee Spawn and P. James Eckhoff Jr.

On the Democrats’ side Susan Randall became the choice to fill a vacancy for a House candidate in District 12. Randall was executive director for South Dakota Voices for Children from 1999 through 2012. She became an important figure at the Legislature’s session each winter. Randall replaces Betsy Lang as a Democratic House candidate after Lang’s withdrawal. Randall and Bob Benson are the two Democrats seeking the two House seats for District 12. Their Republican opponents are Greg Jamison of Sioux Falls city government fame and one-term incumbent Arch Beal. This contest promises to cover the full political spectrum.

These should be two lively races.