Bill would make it harder to move county seats; opponents call it ‘antidemocratic’

By: - January 13, 2023 4:11 pm
Photo of the Dewey County Courthouse in winter, built in 1959 and located in Timber Lake, South Dakota.

The Dewey County courthouse was built in 1959 and is located in Timber Lake, South Dakota. (Kathy Nelson/Timber Lake Topic)

Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, wants to make it more difficult to move a county seat to another city.

Senate Bill 56, which he introduced Tuesday, follows a failed 2022 effort to move the Dewey County seat from Timber Lake to Eagle Butte

Dewey County is one of a few South Dakota counties that is within a Native American reservation, in this case the Cheyenne River Reservation. The county’s population is 79% Native American, according to the 2020 census.

Maher, who lives in Dewey County and whose district includes Dewey, Butte, Corson, Harding, Perkins and Ziebach counties, filed the bill in response to the effort, citing the potential cost associated with moving the county seat and the influence of non-Dewey County residents on the process. Eagle Butte straddles the Dewey and Ziebach county lines, and some petition signers last year were Eagle Butte residents of Ziebach County.

The existing state law (SDCL 7-6-4) governing the change of a county seat was written in 1939 and was last amended in 1987. Maher’s proposed changes to the statute include:

  • Raising the required number of petition signatures from 15% to 40% of registered voters in the county, which Maher admits he “threw in for shock value.”
  • Setting a July 1 deadline for the petition ahead of a general election. There is no deadline currently set by state law.
  • Raising the voter approval from two-thirds majority to three-fourths majority.
  • Extending the allowable deadline for a county seat relocation, if voters approve one, from 30 days to one year because there’s “no way” to move in the current timeframe, Maher said.
  • Restricting the relocation question from being introduced again for four years if the vote fails.
  • Establishing the county auditor’s authority – which Maher said is not clear in current law – to verify petition signatures are from county registered voters, based on the last general election.
  • Requiring petitioners provide a cost estimate and timeline to move the county seat.

“If you’re going to make these people commit to a $10 million expenditure, they better know what they’re voting on and they better be serious about it,” Maher said.

Carl Petersen, the 25-year-old Parade resident, member of the Oohenumpa band of Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal member who petitioned the Dewey County move, believes the bill is racist and unnecessary, since “it’s already nearly impossible” to move county seats under current law.

“They’re more interested in maintaining the non-Indian oligarchy than representing the people who live here,” Petersen said. “The community of Timber Lake does not want to lose to Indians, specifically the county commissioners and its supporters.”

Headshot of Ryan Maher (R-28
Sen. Ryan Maher is a Republican lawmaker representing Butte, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Perkins and Ziebach counties. He resides in Dewey County. (Courtesy of South Dakota Legislature)

Petersen began circulating the petition to move the Dewey County seat to Eagle Butte in March 2022. While he had until November to gain 15% of voter signatures from the last general election, or 518 signatures, he turned in the petitions in July to afford the county more time to get the issue on the ballot, he said. According to a county commission review of the petitions, he submitted fewer than 500 valid signatures.

Petersen wanted to move the county seat to the largest city in the county, which is heavily populated by Native Americans. Eagle Butte has a population of 3,152 while Timber Lake, the county seat, has a population of 513.

Four-fifths of the county commission is White, Petersen said. He added that when the county seat was established in 1910, some Native Americans weren’t legally allowed to vote.

Moving the county seat would hopefully make involvement at the county level easier for Native Americans, Petersen said. The drive to Timber Lake from Eagle Butte takes about 40 minutes one way. 

The move would also serve as a symbol of “Native people taking control of these systems imposed on us,” Petersen added.

The changes laid out in SB 56 are restrictive, he said.

“This bill, to me, shows Ryan Maher and his supporters have a very narrow understanding of democracy and they care not what their voters believe but only what is most convenient to them,” Petersen said.

Maher responded that he’s willing to adjust the bill.

“I have some things in there that can be negotiated and things that really need to pass,” Maher said. “Because this is a real, true life issue that’s affecting the taxpayers of Dewey County.”

Maher denied any racial motivation for the bill and said it’s motivated by fiscal concerns.

“Why would the residents of Dewey County force themselves to pay, and I’m just guessing here, $10 million to build a new courthouse? Why subject themselves to move it 50 miles away for no other reason than location?” Maher said.

He emphasized that about 40% of Dewey County land is taxable by the county while the rest is tribal land or in trust, so “very few taxpayers” would pay the cost.

Meanwhile, Maher said Dewey County officials are working to bring a kiosk to Eagle Butte so tribal members can renew their vehicle registration without driving to Timber Lake.

Petersen plans to petition the relocation of the Dewey County seat again.

“They believe Timber Lake would die without this courthouse and they might be right. At least their way of life acting like they don’t live on a reservation would die,” Petersen said. “It’s a legitimate cultural problem. If they don’t want to sign a petition, fine. If they don’t vote for it, fine. But restricting the ability to get this on the ballot at all is antidemocratic.”

SB 56 is awaiting a hearing by the Senate Local Government Committee.




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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.