Votes on turkey barns may violate conflict of interest law

Shannon Marvel
Farm Forum

An Edmunds County commissioner may have violated state law by voting on several building permits for projects on his and his immediate family’s property.

Commissioner Nathan Davis voted to approve three turkey barn building permits in September while serving on the county’s planning and zoning commission, according to meeting minutes.

State law prohibits a county official from participating in, discussing or voting on any issue in which the official has a conflict of interest.

One of those building permits was to build turkey barns on Davis’ property. The other two were for building permits on land owned by Davis’ father, Darrell Davis, and brother, Justin Davis, according to information from the Edmunds County Register of Deeds Office.

Attempts to contact Edmunds County State’s Attorney Vaughn Beck and Davis for this story were unsuccessful, as emails and phone calls were not returned.

In another potential conflict of interest incident, Davis and planning commission member Audie Crouch voted to approve building permits in their own names during a planning and zoning meeting Oct. 16.

Any potential conflict of interest must be discussed by the governing board, according to state law. If an official with a direct financial interest participates in discussion or votes on a matter before the governing body, that official’s vote is invalidated, per state law.

Duane Sutton, a Brown County commissioner and past president of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners, doesn’t know the circumstances in Edmunds County, but recommended that Davis and the other commissioners abstain from voting on issues that directly involves them.

“As an example, (Brown County commissioner) Nancy Hansen’s son works for WEB Water, so whenever WEB Water comes in and asks for an occupancy permit in the right-of-way, she always abstains,” Sutton said.

“She doesn’t work directly for WEB Water, but her son does, so that way there would never be any perception of conflict of interest.”

Edmunds County’s policy defines a conflict of interest as any situation in which a county official, employee, or board member, in the discharge of official duties, would be required to take any action or make any decision that may cause financial benefit to:

• That same county official, employee or board member.

• Any member of the official’s, employee’s or board member’s immediate family, defined to include a spouse, parent, child, sibling related by blood, marriage or adoption.

• A business enterprise owned in whole or part by the public official, employee or board member, unless the benefit is extended to the general public or a broad segment of the public at large.

The policy states that as soon as the county official, employee or board member is actually aware or reasonably aware of the conflict of interest, then that person is required to comply with all applicable state statutes and if allowed by said statutes, to make full disclosure of, or to remove himself/herself from the conflict of interest.

Sutton said a commissioner should abstain from voting on a building permit if he or she owns the property in question.

“If you own the property you’re voting on, that would truly, in my opinion, fall under the category of conflict of interest. That way, there’s no question that you’ve got inside information and that’s why you’re allowing a permit. It keeps everything cleaner,” Sutton said.

He said not all county commissions have the luxury of having a state’s attorney be present to provide legal advice during the meeting. If a state’s attorney is present, Sutton said the attorney should advise a commissioner to abstain from voting if they have a conflict of interest.

Permits and petitions

Of the three permits Davis voted to approve, two were submitted from Farm Holdings SD 25 LLC and the other was submitted by Farm Holdings SD 212 LLC.

Both limited liability companies are owned by Hendrix Genetics, which is based in the Netherlands.

Hendrix Genetics also owns Farm Holdings SD LLC 12, which submitted a building permit for a turkey facility that has been a point of public contention.

That permit would allow for seven connected barns to be built as part of a “pod” that would house 26,800 turkeys, according to information from Hendrix Genetics. It would be about 2 miles southwest of Ipswich and about a half-mile away from an existing home. Some residents expressed concerns about odors.

The permit was originally approved by the planning and zoning commission on March 8. But it was sent back to the board by the Edmunds County Commission. That was after more than 60 residents signed a petition asking that the permit be revoked and it was determined that the March 8 meeting agenda was not published on the county’s website as required.

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