Over the past few weeks, People’s Rule has been digging into the documents of how and why the Home Rule Charter Committee has come about. But recently, People’s Rule was told by a City Hall insider that there was still more to uncover with Helen Usera and the Mayor.
Upon further investigation, the People’s Rule has discovered a backroom deal, which may possibly constitute legal violations of South Dakota laws, as well as City Hall policies.
After filing a South Dakota Open Records Request with the City, People’s Rule obtained the campaign finance records of Mayor Steve Allender, which shows that Helen Usera was serving as Allender’s treasurer for his re-election campaign in 2019. Over the next few months, Allender in his position as Mayor helped contribute $177,300.09 to Helen Usera or her employers she was working for, both directly and indirectly.
Allender in his position as Mayor helped contribute $177,300.09 to Helen Usera or her employers she was working for, both directly and indirectly.
Shortly after Mayor Steve Allender’s re-election on June 4, 2019, under Mayor Allender’s direction the City of Rapid City Council voted on July 15, 2019 to contribute $141,852 through a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to the Abbott House Children’s Home, based out of Mitchell, South Dakota, where Mayor Allender’s campaign treasurer Helen Usera around that time had recently taken a position as the Assistant Director of Development to assist the Abbott House “on the capital campaign and community outreach efforts in Rapid City.” (See Resources & Documents below – Legal & Finance Committee Minutes, Jul 10, 2019; City Council Minutes, Jul. 15, 2019; FY 2019 CDBG Reallocation Funds; Abbott House Magazine & “Abbott House slated to receive $140k in CDBG funding,” Matthew Guerry, Rapid City Journal. Jul. 11, 2019)
Then on December 16, 2019 the City Council voted to authorize the Mayor to form the Home Rule Charter Committee, where Mayor Allender, 50 days later exactly on February 4, 2020, hired his former campaign treasurer Helen Usera on a no-bid contract to provide “task force facilitation and research,” totaling $33,575 to date in direct payments to Usera’s consulting firm Usera Consulting, LLC from the City. (See Resources & Documents below – City Council Meeting Minutes, Dec. 16, 2019 & Usera Consulting, LLC contract, Feb. 4, 2020)
In addition, 11 days before Usera received her no-bid contract from Mayor Allender, the Allender for Mayor campaign itself wrote a check for $1,873.09 dated January 24, 2020 to the Abbott House Foundation, which Helen Usera reported as Allender’s campaign treasurer in a Campaign Finance Termination Report filed on February 18, 2020. (See Resources & Documents below – Allender for Mayor, Termination Report, Feb. 18, 2020)
According to City Hall insiders, concerns over the no-bid contract were raised by City Councilpersons early spring of 2020, but were told by the Mayor’s office at the time that it was acceptable “because the cost [was] under $50,000 and the Mayor has authority to spend that without Council approval, and … because it is a professional service which, itself is exempt from bidding.”
However, concerns over the legality of some of these transactions have been raised, involving violations of the City’s Conflict of Interest policy, South Dakota Codified Law (SDCL) on conflicts of interests and public bidding and purchasing, despite the City’s explanation, which some argue are invalid.
City Councilpersons, and others, have raised concerns that Mayor Allender’s connection to Helen Usera constitutes a conflict of interest, as Allender has a personal and direct interest in his campaign treasurer Helen Usera. Under the City’s current Conflict of Interest policy, Resolution 2016-096 signed by Mayor Allender on January 20, 2017, it states that “[c]onflicts of interest may exist when an Official … has a personal or financial interest clearly separate from that of the general public … [and] [s]uch conflicts of interest may be financial or personal, direct or indirect.” In addition, the City Conflict of Interest policy, cites SDCL § 6-1-1 which helps clarify this, by stating: “It shall be unlawful for any officer of a … municipality…, who has been elected or appointed, to be interested, either by himself or agent, in any contract entered into by said … municipality …, either for labor or services to be rendered.” (See Resources & Documents below – Rapid City Conflict of Interest Policy)
Furthermore, the explanation that the Mayor could expend up to $50,000 without Council approval has been brought into question as well, pointing out that the current Rapid City Municipal Code (RCMC) 3.04.090 states that the limitation of $50,000 or less, only applies to purchases of “equipment,” and that RCMC 3.04.090(1) states that expenditures for “supplies and services” may be made without Council approval if it is “an amount less than $25,000,” noting that $33,575 has been expended on the Usera Consulting, LLC contract to date.
Opponents argue that the services offered by Usera for “task force meeting facilitation and research,” as specified in her contract, do not qualify as a “professional service” as defined by SDCL § 5-18A-1(19), which defines a “professional service” as one “arising out of a vocation, calling, occupation, or employment involving specialized knowledge, labor, or skill, and the labor or skill involved is predominately mental or intellectual, rather than physical or manual.” As argued by opponents to this interpretation, “meeting facilitation” or “research” is not typically considered a “specialized knowledge” in the context of a professional service, such as a lawyer, engineer, architect, or other typical profession, which usually requires certification as well as a collegiate degree for that specialized knowledge.
SDCL § 5-18A-8 helps clarify this differentiation between a service and a professional service in stating that: “a contract may be awarded for supplies or services without competition if the purchasing agency determines in writing that the supplies or services are of such a unique nature that the contract selected is clearly and justifiably the only practicable source to provide the supplies or services.” It has been noted by opponents, that Dr. Helen Usera, received her Doctorate in Educational Administration from the University of Kansas in 1998, making her wholly unqualified to act as an expert in Home Rule law or in other forms of municipal law and governance. Usera’s previous degrees have included a M.S. in Special Education from Pittsburg State University in 1997, a B.S. in Elementary Education in 1993, and a General Studies Associates of Arts degree from Labette Community College, located in Parsons, Kansas. (See Helen Usera LinkedIn)
Currently, SDCL § 5-18A-14, as well as RCMC 3.04.090, requires “a contract for the purchase of supplies or services … that involves the expenditure of twenty-five thousand dollars or more, the purchasing agency shall advertise for bids or proposals.”
Opponents to the Rapid City Home Rule have argued that Mayor Allender’s conflict of interest with his campaign treasurer Helen Usera should have been disclosed among the $175,427 dollars in various transactions of the City’s, from the City’s CDBG grant allocation to Mayor Allender’s no-bid contract offer made without Council approval.