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Pennington County Commission offends two cultures

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Two Pennington County Commissioners in two successive weeks managed to make remarks that were disparaging to two cultures, the American Indian and the Jewish communities.

Mark Kirkeby, commission chairman, issued an apology on behalf of the commission for remarks made the week before by Commissioner Ken Davis.

Davis, during a debate over funding to expand the Pennington County Jail and detox facility, said American Indians were "property" of the federal government and the feds should pay the $42 per day when American Indians were drunk and commit crimes. At the time of the meeting, 67 percent of those incarcerated or in the detox were American Indian.

Davis said later he might have misspoken when he used the word property and should have said federal responsibility instead. He said he would apologize for that, but nothing else he said.

"The Pennington County Commission does not condone or support his statement. We are disappointed about his inappropriate comment regarding the Native American population," Kirkeby said in a prepared apology.

"We cannot retract Mr. Davis' comment. We can and do apologize for not reacting to his statements at the time they were made. These comments have no place in the Commission meeting room, anywhere in Pennington County, the state of South Dakota and the United States.

"We have never acted in a prejudicial manner and have never discriminated against any race, religion, or any minority. We are all God's people," Kirkeby said.

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The American Indian community became outraged at Davis' remarks and gathered at the next meeting to confront the commission and Davis. Mary Wright, a long-time resident of Rapid City, said she would report the incident to the Civil Rights Commission and asked that Davis resign from the commission.

Wright issued a written statement to the commissioners and, while a group of American Indian visitors were present, she laid out a historical background of reservation life, continued racism and broken treaties. She also said it was remarkable that more American Indian people didn't drink and commit crimes than do.

She told the group Davis' comments could be understood to mean that American Indians were the cause of all problems and created the need for the expansion of the jail and detox facility.

"On behalf of the Pennington County Commission, I would like to apologize to the Native American population and all citizens of Pennington County for any harm or anguish caused by this incident.

"The commission strongly rejects the comments that were made and assures all residents of Pennington County that the commission will treat all residents respectfully and equally regardless of race," Kirkeby said.

At the next week's commission meeting, Don Phillips, director of the Emergency Services Communications Center made a derogatory remark that prompted Kirkeby to say he would request an apology.

Phillips was explaining the pricing for computer equipment at the 911 center when he said he had "Jewed" the Gateway company down in price.

Kirkeby said the remark was a slip-up, but he would ask for a public apology anyway.