The Yankton County Commission had an agenda item Tuesday regarding an ongoing discussion on adopting a code of conduct for commissioners and county staff — but it was the conduct of one of the commissioners that became the main focus of this item’s discussion.
During the Jan. 22 commission meeting, Yankton County State’s Attorney Rob Klimisch and Chairperson Cheri Loest addressed a number of emails that Commissioner Gary Swensen has sent to them, as well as to county and state officials and media addresses. The emails made unfounded accusations of impropriety on the part of Loest, State’s Attorney Klimisch and Gov. Kristi Noem whom he accuses of holding an unspecified job open for Loest.
At the time, Swensen did not address the emails but has continued to send them in the interim to local and state officials and media addresses, including the Press & Dakotan. Many emails have included personal swipes at commissioners Loest and Don Kettering, accusing them of being “carpetbaggers.”
However, during Tuesday’s discussion on the implementation of a code of conduct that the board has talked about since last year, Swensen made a statement about the last meeting’s proceedings.
“Two weeks ago, the first public comment, the state’s attorney came up and made several comments that he didn’t like my emails,” Swensen said. “Then Chairman [sic] Loest chimed in with the public comment saying she didn’t like my emails. So I want to thank both of them for bringing that up. I have had a lot of talk with several constituents over the last two weeks, and those constituents would like to thank both of those people — chairman [sic] Loest and State’s Attorney Klimisch — for showing their real true colors. The true colors and what they showed for Gary Swensen was their hatred for him. Not their bias, but their hatred and their hatred for what he stands for.”
He later read a letter that he claimed was from a supporter encouraging anyone who didn’t like the emails to simply delete them.
Commissioner Don Kettering objected to the characterization that the emails were brought up out of hatred.
“I think it’s not a hatred for you. It might be a hatred for some of the things that you do and represent that appear to be rather ridiculous,” Kettering said. “I can’t speak for those two, but I myself would like to see that part of your behavior change.”
Then, visibly upset, Loest chose to speak on the matter.
“I agree with Don — I have no hatred for anyone,” she said. “But I do not enjoy getting emails that say, ‘You would not remember this on Broadway because you were born someplace else.’ And there is a picture of Bimbo Burgers. I do not enjoy that. I do not have hatred for the person who sent it, but when I show that to my children and they ask me, ‘Mom, why do you put yourself through this?’ I say, ‘It’s for the good of the county.’ I do not enjoy getting taglines that say, ‘Here are the real women who march for our rights,’ insinuating I do not.”
She said that she receives 20 or so of these emails each day and looks through all of them.
“I do not have any hatred for Commissioner Swensen, but I do not feel any person in our position should have to tolerate it from their fellow coworkers,” she said. “If I was in a working environment, I would be fired on the spot for doing things like that.”
Loest’s statement received a round of applause from many in attendance.
Commissioner Dan Klimisch also condemned Swensen’s behavior.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” Klimisch said. “We need to be leading by example in what we do. Gary, I don’t agree with your behavior.”
Commissioner Joseph Healy stated that he would like to reiterate what had been said by Kettering and Loest.
There were no further comments from Swensen.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Loest said that her addressing Swensen’s personal attacks Tuesday evening was spontaneous.
“I didn’t plan on saying anything tonight, but I guess I felt it was appropriate at the time to express the frustration one can feel,” she said. “I’ve worked in many jobs in my lifetime. I have never been labeled that way by any coworkers.”
On the potential adoption of a code of conduct, Loest said having one set in place would make an important statement of where the county stands.
“It doesn’t change state law, for sure, but if you don’t come out and say what’s happening isn’t right in some form, then you’re part of the problem,” she said.
The current draft is to be sent out to department heads for feedback and discussed at the commission’s next meeting.
In other county business announced Wednesday, a quorum is possible Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Avera Professional Pavilion during the District 18 Cracker Barrel. No official county business will be conducted during this event.
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