Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Sept. 27

Impeachment in a new digital age

Fall arrived this week, and so did a season of presidential impeachment. It’s almost enough to make me want to escape for a while to someplace like New Zealand, where spring has just started and perhaps there may be quieter days on the horizon.

This week’s events in Washington have resurrected memories from 20 years ago, when this nation was shackled to another impeachment crisis. It was a seemingly endless and angry time when trivial developments became big news as they bounced around the cable news channels and a newly emerging medium called the internet. Just dredging up my memories of those contentious days drains me.

However, as I was thinking back on the Bill Clinton impeachment the other night and contemplating whatever may await us now, something awful occurred to me:

This time, the impeachment process — however far it goes — will be played out against the backdrop of a trolling, predatory, omnipresent, hounding, scolding, relentless internet and social media.

God help us.

Two decades ago, the Bill Clinton scandal was a wall-to-wall circus on television and online, and that spotlight drove the exhausting narrative during many news cycles. But the internet was a more basic domain, social media was a dream and most of us used our clunky, un-smart cellular phones as phones — and ONLY phones.

But all that might pale compared to the tsunami of coverage, commentary and relentless spin that may be crashing our way as this current inquiry unfolds in this vast, accessible digital age.

Now, if you aren’t on social media — if you have avoided Facebook or, especially, Twitter — my hat’s off to you. You may not realize how good you have it, how blessedly free you are of the trolls and bots, how untethered you are from the rants and ridicule of others who would likely infest your interactions. (News sites are generally the worst for this, but sports sites run a surprisingly close second.)

But if you ARE on social media ... hang on for what could be a brutal ride.

In many ways, we’re already there, at least in basic human terms — and I’m not referring solely to Donald Trump’s current impeachment situation.

The internet — especially social media — can coax the worst out of people. And some individuals have no problem at all going with it, trashing anyone who disagrees with them, spewing insults at anyone or anything they choose — all without having to deal with their targets face to face. And that’s the key: There is a certain amount of freedom in NOT being there when you, say, disparage someone’s character or offend an entire sub-group of humanity at large. As I’ve noted in the past, social media can bring out the inner bully in some people in ways that are both sickening and perversely riveting.

Imagine all the festering dark energy that could be unleashed during a presidential impeachment, with the stakes already high and emotions boiling over. This could be rather unpleasant, which is like calling the current flooding along the James River a tad damp.

And naturally, it figures that the president who is the subject of this impeachment inquiry is a high-profile Twitter addict himself. Imagine what life in America might be like right now if Trump had never taken to Twitter. Imagine what his presidency might be like. I can’t provide any specifics, but I can confidently guess that both life and his presidency would be operating somewhat more smoothly than they are now.

As the impeachment process grinds on, social media, which can play to our worst impulses, will be there every step of the way serving as a mostly unfiltered sounding board, and the president will certainly be part of that fray. He can’t help himself.

Meanwhile, the internet in general has grown dramatically — it’s become an indispensable staple of life, quite unlike the 1990s — and the public is now far more sophisticated in using it. But of course, that also means people are now more adept at exploiting its reach and power. It’s become a seductive conduit for propaganda, conspiracy theories and forged realities, and it lets you tune out anything you don’t want to deal with. This will challenge our sensibilities and our sense of unity, which has been the tactical point of some of the foreign incursions into our political and social proceedings.

And that’s why I find what we are about to endure so mind-numbing to even contemplate. The possibilities and the appalling depths feel endless.

However, it might also help rewrite one piece of our recent history: It could make us nostalgic for the bygone days of the Clinton impeachment, which could wind up looking quaint and convivial by comparison.

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Daily Leader, Madison, Oct. 1

Box Elder residents deserve to know truth

The city attorney in Box Elder, South Dakota, has been paid $100,000 to resign. Government officials there, however, are not telling citizens why.

The Rapid City Journal reported that the Box Elder City Council approved the payment in July during a closed session. Attempts to get a copy of the separation agreement between the city and former City Attorney Kristi Vetri resulted in a redacted document with no information about the reason for the separation or payment.

Half the money will come directly from the city and half will come from the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance, an insurance carrier of sorts. The two sides release each other from further claims.

We certainly have no additional information about the situation, but the citizens of Box Elder deserve to know more. The $100,000 is their money (half of it is directly their money, the other half is indirectly their money through insurance premiums).

We recognize that private businesses aren't required to release information about these kinds of things, but that seems to be the biggest problem: local governments aren't private businesses. They are legitimately owned and controlled by the citizens. Elected officials are directly responsible to citizens, not the other way around. Governments are public trusts, and the public deserves to know what is happening with the institution they "own."

We certainly appreciate those citizens who are working to get the information released, as well as the Rapid City Journal which is doing the same. We hope their efforts pay off soon, and avoid expensive legal action required to get the reasons made public.

Box Elder residents are entitled to know the truth.

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Rapid City Journal, Oct. 1

State needs larger bonds from energy companies

So what has state government learned from its experience with Spyglass Cedar Creek of Texas?

Spyglass is the energy company that abandoned 40 natural-gas wells in Harding County, leaving the state and landowners in a difficult position. Abandoned wells can cause environmental damage and are costly to cap as anyone who has followed the Journal’s coverage of this saga knows.

South Dakota only requires energy companies to post a $10,000 bond for wells shallower than 5,500 feet and $30,000 for a blanket bond that covers an unlimited number of wells. For deeper wells, it’s $50,000 per well and a $100,000 for the blanket bond.

In the case of Spyglass, a $30,000 bond was required.

The problem, however, is that amount of money won't come close to covering the cost of capping the wells, which the state estimates will be around $1.2 million. So, who is on the hook for the rest of it? It is not the out-of-state company, which has already complied with the state’s requirement.

So that likely leaves taxpayers stuck with the bill if the wells are capped unless the state finds funds elsewhere. If they are not capped by the state, innocent landowners get stuck with an expensive problem that has the potential to devalue or pollute their land.

Compare that to how the state handles private citizens who owe it money.

If an individual owes as little as $50, the state can deny that person a hunting or fishing license or the opportunity to make a camping reservation at a state park. If the debt is greater than $1,000, it can suspend the driver’s license and vehicle registration of the debtor. The state also will enlist the help of its Obligation Recovery Center, an out-of-state collection company. It appears no stone is left unturned in the effort to hold citizens accountable, a policy many in South Dakota likely support.

So, the state holds individuals accountable but not energy companies that seem to be coming here in greater frequency if the recent gold-exploration projects in the Black Hills are any indication.

At least some members of the Board of Minerals and Environment seem to realize that energy companies need to be treated more like people.

In September, the administrator of the Minerals and Mining program for the Department of Natural Environment said his department will ask the Legislature to increase bonding requirements to $50,000 for a single bond and $100,000 for a blanket bond for an unlimited number of wells regardless of depth.

Yes, the needle has moved but only incrementally. In fact, one can argue that it encourages energy companies to post the $100,000 bond for the opportunity to do unlimited drilling.

In the case of Spyglass, the proposed change would still leave the state with a $1.1 million obligation. So, what's really changed? What's the best path forward if the state wants to hold energy companies more accountable?

There are those in state government who want to see that. Mike Lees, administrator of the Mineral and Mining program, asked at a recent meeting if it should be "the taxpayers' responsibility to pay for the Spyglass mess?"

John Scheetz, a member of the Board of Minerals and Environment, blamed lawmakers for the inadequate bonding requirements and asked them to address it. "The Legislature should take responsibility," he said.

Most South Dakotans understand and support incentives for businesses in the state. What is troubling, however, is when the state asks those same taxpayers to subsidize exploration projects that are as likely to fail as succeed.

The Legislature needs to look at the Mineral Board's proposal as a starting point. According to Lees, other states don't offer blanket bonds, which seems prudent. The state should also base the bond on the projected cost of capping each well a company drills.

Otherwise, the state of South Dakota has learned little from this affair and taxpayers still have to worry about being on the hook for failed exploration projects.

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