By Mark Gaschler
The Sheridan County Commissioners met in a regular meeting at the courthouse on Monday, Nov. 9. All three commissioners were present. Of particular public interest:
Road Superintendent Tom Kuester is prepared to open the bid process on a motor grader, and hopes to present the bids to the commissioners at the Dec. 21 meeting. He plans to sell the old blade privately by Jan. 1. He reported that repairs on the Hay Springs shop, which was damaged earlier this year in a fire, have been going slower than expected due to delays. He said one of the road department employees will be quitting at the end of the year, and he will be advertising for the position. He supplied 10 trucks of pitrun to repair a road in southern Sheridan County, and will supply pit run to repair the Denton road.
David Goebel and Jeff Berggren of Ameresco presented the commissioners with an RFQ for the county building upgrades project.
At 10:00 a.m., the commissioners moved the meeting up from the commissioners room to the district courtroom to accommodate the crowd of about 25 people who appeared for the discussion on Whiteclay. They invited Sheriff Terry Robbins, County Attorney Jamian Simmons and Sen. Al Davis to join them in the discussion and to allow them to directly address questions.
The commissioners invited Lance Moss of Whiteclay Grocery, who brought the issue up initially at their last meeting, to open discussion. Moss said he had nothing new to add from the last meeting, except that he brought an incident log of the interactions he and his wife have had dealing with street people. His primary concern remains that Whiteclay is not a safe place for him to conduct business, and he said he was looking for solutions to that, either from the citizens of Whiteclay, the county government, or the state government.
Commissioner James Krotz said he has had no contact from Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office about Whiteclay, although Sen. Davis said the governor plans to put together a commission to examine the issue. Simmons added that the Nebraska Liquor Commission were performing compliance checks last week.
John Hotz, who grew up in Whiteclay, said he knows some of the people in Whiteclay from his work with the South Dakota Social Services, who he said have homes but choose to stay in Whiteclay to drink. He said that the county’s ultimate concern is supporting the businesses in Whiteclay, not the street people. He said the county’s goal is to make it uncomfortable for the street people to squat in Whiteclay. He suggested that the county step up in its efforts to prosecute various offenses committed on public property in the town, primarily along the state highway.
“We have to, in some way, make it so that it’s not comfortable for that person to sit on the doorstep of the people who have businesses in Whiteclay,” Hotz said. He also did not support efforts to provide food, blankets and clothing in Whiteclay.
“I would support any program that would pick that person up and take them back to their residence and feed them,” he said. “Or take them to my residence and feed them.”
Commissioner Jack Andersen responded by saying that it was unclear how far the state’s right-of-way extended in the town, and he pointed out that attempts to prosecute crimes have proven over time to be ineffective. The sheriff, he said, typically hands the offender a citation, which gets ignored, and the offender is arrested for failure to appear in court, is given 30 days in jail, and goes back to Whiteclay after that.
Simmons also said that state law limits her ability to prosecute some offenses. As an example, she said there is no state law against public urination, and the county has no authority to pass any kind of ordinance to make the act illegal.
Sen. Davis also pointed out that each arrest takes time away from the sheriff and costs the county for prosecution. “Any conversation I’ve had with the governor’s office, I’ve said it’s really important that the state put the resources there, because the state has more resources that are available,” he said. “More than Sheridan County does.”
Commissioner Dan Kling pointed out that Whiteclay, which is valued for under $1 million, provides about $4,600 of taxes that go directly to the county.
Hotz argued that it would be unfair to say that Whiteclay only deserves $4,600 worth of law enforcement, arguing that no part of the county can afford to pay for the sheriff’s time.
A woman from the Good Neighbor Center in Hay Springs told the commissioners that the situation in Whiteclay was taking away from the rest of the county. She told the commissioners that on one occasion, when dealing with an aggressive visitor, she called the sheriff and was told that the deputy was busy in Whiteclay. The deputy did not arrive in Hay Springs until forty minutes later, when the situation was already over. “That could have turned dangerous,” she said. “I have a right to the same protection that those poor souls on the street have in Whiteclay. They have rights, too. We’re all human beings. We’ve got to find some way to stop this problem.”
Carolyn Graham said that when her three sons worked at a gas station that sold beer in Whiteclay, they never had issues with street people. “We never used to see anybody laying there on the streets,” she said.
Graham argued that the liquor stores in Whiteclay are not the problem. The troubles in Whiteclay started, she said, because people began to give away things like blankets, clothes and food. She said the solution would be to move those efforts out of Whiteclay and into Pine Ridge. She asked Sheriff Robbins why Rushville no longer has a homeless problem, and if that solution could be used in Whiteclay.
Robbins said Rushville passed an ordinance against panhandling, which stopped citizens from giving money away to the homeless, which encouraged them to leave town. He believes that people give money to panhandlers in Whiteclay out of fear of them becoming possibly violent.
Robbins also said that the federal government has encouraged Native Americans to expect handouts. He said that most of the clothing and blankets handed out in Whiteclay end up becoming trash, which adds to the physical problems in Whiteclay.
Kling said that, at the moment, the county needs to focus on what it can do to combat conditions in Whiteclay, the first being to clean the town up. Whiteclay, he said, has many abandoned buildings that add to the squalor of the community. “Those buildings need to be cleaned up,” he said. “That needs to be from the community. So we’re going to have to have cooperation there.”
He noted that there have been attempts to clean the properties, but the property owners have refused those offers.
Simmons said the county can reorganize itself to create what are essentially zoning regulations to require properties to be mowed and buildings maintained, but warned that the county would have to enforce those regulations throughout, not just in Whiteclay. She also said that creating the regulations would not be a fast process.
Curtis Hoyt of Hands of Faith Ministries said the primary problem with Whiteclay is alcoholism and drug addiction. The ministry runs a soup kitchen in town, as well as a recovery program, and Hoyt said about half of the men they help are able to transition into a healthy lifestyle. He said that his program was more effective than short term programs like NEPSAC in Gordon.
“The issue in Whiteclay is complex in a sense, but mainly an issue of alcoholism and some kind of addiction,” he said. He said that he estimates that 90% of the street people in Whiteclay are Native Americans. He also said that a third have mental disabilities and are incapable of making good decisions, possibly caused by or leading to fetal alcohol syndrome, a third are military veterans or are in a transitional period and have no where else to go, and a third are there because the reservation provides them no legal way to purchase and drink alcohol. He said that homelessness is not the issue, and that if the bars and liquor stores in Whiteclay are closed, the street people will move somewhere else to drink. He suggested that Sheridan County enter into a coop with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to provide law enforcement in Whiteclay. He also suggested that repeat offenders, instead of being put in jail for one to three months, be put into a year long treatment program to deal with their alcoholism.
One of the attendees in the crowd, who identified herself as part of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, pointed out that not all Native Americans drink alcohol, and that fetal alcohol syndrome affects all races, and that a lot of the issues in Whiteclay are generational. She testified to the poor conditions in Whiteclay, and agreed that the town should not be comfortable for the street peoples to live in. She also pointed to the money from Pine Ridge being spent in Nebraska, which she said could have stayed on the reservation.
Simmons clarified that the alcohol tax does not go to the county, but to the state.
Krotz chose this time to emphasize that the county has very little authority over what is happening in Whiteclay. Counties cannot make or pass laws, and the commissioners can only create the county’s budget and set the levy. The most the commissioners can do, he said, is provide a public forum for people to discuss the issue. He said there were two things that came up in discussion so far: one, that there is no big solution to the problem in Whiteclay, and two, that Whiteclay needs to be cleaned up and made uncomfortable for the street people. Public safety, he said, is the issue.
Lynette Richards of Monument Prevention Coalition in Scottsbluff, a group that tries to prevent underage drinking, said that the people in Whiteclay are there for alcohol, not for handouts. “You can brush it off however you want, they’re there for alcohol,” Richards said.
She pointed out that it’s a very small percentage of Pine Ridge that make up the street people. She focused on trying to provide an environment that would prevent drinking. She suggested creating zoning laws similar to the ones used in North Omaha to control the alcohol problem that would control “negligent businesses.”
Simmons told her that county zoning laws are very limited compared to cities, and that the county does not regulate liquor licenses beyond the application.
Kling said that the commissioners can turn down an application if the applicant does not meet the requirements.
Bruce BonFleur of Lakota Hope Ministries said that the issue with the liquor licenses is that Whiteclay is in clear violation of the Liquor Commission’s statutes. “When these liquor licenses, when they come again for approval, there is no way that the liquor commission’s statutes and laws in the books right now are being enforced in any way, shape or form,” BonFleur said.
While pointing out that he has never protested against the liquor stores in town, he said that the lack of adequate law enforcement and lack of public safety dictate that the liquor licenses not be renewed until the issues are addressed. He said that the Nebraska Attorney General would be looking into the situation. He emphasized that the county has a moral obligation not to allow the situation in Whiteclay to continue.
“I’m not blaming you, I’m not even blaming the beer stores, I’m blaming the Nebraska Liquor Commission, and the failure of everybody to do what’s right in this situation,” BonFleur said.
He also brought up the abandoned buildings in Whiteclay, which the street people use for shelter during bad weather. He said he offered to the property owners to clean it for free, but was refused.
Kling asked Simmons wether the county or the property would be liable in case one of the properties caught on fire or collapsed, and she said it would depend on the facts of the case.
Another person asked if Whiteclay could be incorporated, so the town could pass its own statutes, noting that there are incorporated towns in Nebraska smaller than Whiteclay.
Sen. Al Davis said that a town must have a population of at least 100 people to become incorporated. Should a town drop under that population, a town can maintain its incorporation, but once lost cannot get it back.
Victor Gehrig of Northeast Panhandle Substance Abuse Center in Gordon brought up several questions, which he maintains has successes despite comments to the contrary.
Gehrig said that the attention being put upon Whiteclay is unfair, since there are cities in South Dakota where Native Americans can get liquor. He pointed out that Martin, S.D. is actually the closest place to purchase beer off the reservation, since the Pine Ridge Reservation is separated from Martin by one inch. He also questioned the lack of oversight for funds to faith-based services like Lakota Hope Ministries and Hands of Faith, which he said have received grants over NEPSAC, a point that BonFleur contested. He’s also concerned by the apparent lack of law enforcement on the reservation to prevent alcohol from getting over the border, putting the responsibility on Sheridan County’s shoulders.
“In all the years I’ve been out here, I think I’ve only known of one bootlegger getting busted on Pine Ridge,” he said. “I don’t see them setting up checkpoints to go across to stop people from crossing with alcohol.”
Gehrig also said NEPSAC has been left out of the loop when it comes to meetings with public officials about Whiteclay. “No one sends us out anything,” he said.
Kling said he would try to keep NEPSAC informed. He asked everyone in attendance to try and come up with solutions. “We’ll try anything,” he said. “It don’t have to be a lot. [We can] try something as simple as cleaning up.”
He regretted that the only news coming out of Whiteclay is bad news. “I’d like people [to be] talking and telling us how many loaves of bread get sold out of Whiteclay instead of how many cans of beer,” he said.
He pointed to one store in particular, which doesn’t have as much trouble with street people defecating by it. BonFleur said that the store owner made a deal with the street people: in exchange for playing country music, they don't loiter around his store. Kling pointed out that BonFleur said at the last meeting that the situation has gotten worse since Lakota Hope started 13 years ago, and said that continuing to give to the street people was not working.
BonFleur responded by saying that no one is suffering in Whiteclay for the services he provides, but are there for the alcohol. He said the attorney general told him that the government could only provide short term solutions, and that faith based solutions would provide the long term solutions to the problems. “None of the meal stuff has been going on for more than four years,” BonFleur said.
One woman at the meeting said she would like to train the sheriff’s department on how to handle people with fetal alcohol syndrome, which reduces a person’s ability to make good decisions and essentially makes someone an alcoholic from birth. She said something needs to change before a murder occurs in Whiteclay.
Kling said there have already been tragedies in Whiteclay, and invited Lance Moss to put in the last word.
Moss repeated that his primary concern is for the laws that aren’t being kept and the safety issues he faces.
Kling said the people in Whiteclay essentially have the same problem as the people in southern Sheridan County, where emergency services can take up to an hour to arrive, if it weren’t for an agreement Sheridan County has with Grant County. Someone asked if a similar agreement could be reached with Pine Ridge.
Sheriff Robbins said that the idea had been brought up before, but the tribal police had turned it down. It would have required their officers to complete a sixteen week course to become certified in Nebraska, which they felt was not worth it. The tribal police can assist the sheriff, but he said they aren’t protected in case of an accident. Simmons added that it’s almost impossible for her to use the tribal police while prosecuting.
There was also a question of if officers could be federally certified, but Simmons said she doubts the Department of Justice would prosecute the kind of offenses going on in Whiteclay.
BonFleur also said that it’s possible, though hard, to get some of the state’s alcohol tax to come back to Sheridan County to help the situation. Sen. Davis said he would look into it, but he would have to make a law with language that would cover only the situation in Whiteclay, and it would be hard to get it through the Legislature without another senator wanting to include their area in it.
Kling ended the meeting by saying this was the beginning of the process to fix Whiteclay. “We’re just going to have to keep chiseling away,” he said. “All of us.”