For nearly 30 years Sioux Falls has had a mayor-council form of city government. It has generally worked well. But someday community leaders may want to consider switching to the more popular council-manager system.
City Commission Had to Go
In the 1980s and early 90s, Sioux Falls had a city commission form of government that was not working well. The five-person elected commission divided city government into five separate fiefdoms controlled by five separate elected bosses. Dysfunction in city government caused persistent problems. City Hall could not speak with one voice to provide the leadership our community required.
In the early 1990s, the League of Women Voters studied alternative forms of municipal government. Their study suggested there were two good options available. One was the mayor-council form we have today. The other is the council-manager form of government.
We Chose the Mayor-Council Option
A group of community leaders believed it was time to try to replace our broken city government with a better option. More than a dozen of us were involved in deciding between the two alternatives. It was a close call. We ultimately agreed to promote the mayor-council system. We passed petitions and got enough signatures to put the proposed change on the ballot for voters to decide.
I personally favored the mayor-council form of government for our city. My business background taught me the value of having a strong CEO run things. I considered the manager option to be potentially less robust and less likely to provide the leadership I felt our community was sorely lacking at the time. But times are different now.
At some point Sioux Falls should take a second look at changing to a city manager system.
The Change Worked Well
The change in city government has certainly worked well for Sioux Falls. South Dakota’s #1 city has enjoyed a remarkable period of growth and success. But there are periodic stumbles as well.
Under the current system, the council sometimes get pushed into last minute approvals of half-baked projects like the ill-fated Village on the River which years later is still a large downtown eye sore. More recently, the council was rushed to approve a single bid project with a cost nearly double the estimates, the Unity Bridge on 6th street reconstruction. It was a vote some council members regretted the next day.
Council-Manager is Most Popular
The council-manager form of government is the most popular structure of local government in the US. New mayors have an agenda. A new mayor usually wants to do things differently and to make a difference. By contrast, the city manager system provides stability between administrations.
A council-manager system involves a professional city manager who is appointed by the council to oversee the administration of the city. The council serves as the legislative branch, and the mayor serves as a ceremonial figurehead. This system is more effective in larger cities like Sioux Falls where the administration is more complex and requires professional managment.
The elected city council members would represent their community and develop a long-range vision for its future. They would have the opportunity to focus on policy.
City Managers are Trained Professionals
City managers go through extensive education and training to qualify for their jobs. They are unelected and non-partisan. They have undergraduate and Master of Public Administration degrees. They know how government operations should function and are fully trained to get results. Sioux Falls would have no trouble attracting some of the nation’s best candidates if it had a city manager opening to fill.
Elected mayors, on the other hand, must learn the job quickly, usually with no training or education in public administration.
Who Have We Elected?
Since 1994, Sioux Falls has had four mayors under this mayor-council form of government. All have been young to middle aged white males. None have had previous experience on the city council (although the first mayor, Hanson, served on the previous city commission). So far as I know, none had prior formal education in public administration. All were reelected for a second term.
The last two mayors we elected were financially successful, self-confident guys with backgrounds in marketing. I believe both were newcomers to politics. Neither was a Sioux Falls native. Both provided energetic and enthusiastic leadership to the community.
Nevertheless, some wonder if we would be better off if our city was run by someone with education and experience in public administration. That’s a good question for our community leaders and voters to ponder.
I Favor Enhancing Our Current Model
I am not promoting this change. In my view, City Hall is not broken. The council-manager model is no panacea. The city manager cities I know of have had their challenges too.
But our city government could be better. That’s why I am planning to propose some improvements to our charter to improve our current system. They involve separating the legislative and executive powers of city government. I hope the Charter Revision Commission is open to it.
Watertown recently made the change from Mayor to City Manager a couple years ago. It has been a most positive change. Elected does not necessarily mean qualified.
Fargo would be a great example. They use a city manager. While Fargo is about the same size as Sioux Falls (metro area) their annual budget is about half of what Sioux Falls is. I credit it to having hired professionals run the daily operations of the city instead of salesmen trying to sell us event centers and baseball stadiums. Personally I think we need to take the Home Rule Charter and throw it in the garbage and start over. While it has worked well for the developer welfare class it has not worked well for the middle class in Sioux Falls. Wages still remain low if not stagnant and affordable child care, healthcare and housing still remains out of reach for many. While Sioux Falls has certainly enjoyed great growth, I’m not sure we have gotten back the intended benefits of that growth and I blame a current government system in Sioux Falls that leans one way and usually to the top 1%.
I would like to read an academic comparison of government and other elements of Fargo vs. Sioux Falls, the two biggest cities in the Dakotas. They seem to be similar in many ways.
Strong Mayor Charter doesn’t work with anything. City government is controlled by the inserted mayor and a few oligarchs. The council is merely someone to blame when mayoral policy fails. A city manager would be but another someone to blame. Who wants a 4 year position between mayors with responsibility for everything wrong? If the mayor has Soviet socialist power, blame and corruption must be steered at he and only he.
I’d be happy to visit about CM form of government. I’ve had the privilege of being a community’s first manager (Watertown) and the heartbreak of being a community’s last (Canton) and have served a couple other communities in between. There is real value in having trained professionals carrying out the operational goals of the elected body.
The City Charter should be reviewed and revised to ensure it is contemporary and consistent with state law. Also, a critical and available resource besides academic consultants is the International City Management Association (ICMA).
interesting article to say the least, while I do not think the charter is written in a bad way, there is really not a major issue with the Strong Mayor v Strong City Council form of government, however, there is no issue in holding public discussions to revise the charter, let alone slightly change the charter to give more representation to the residents.
As Joe says, the there is no major issue with the current form of government, he is simply wishing to revisit, and discuss the effects of the Strong Mayor/Council form of government vs one where you have a Council, overseeing a city manager.
Fargo has something like 150,000 residents, compared to Sioux Falls which has almost 210,000 residents.
What is not mentioned here, is that Fargo has a “Commission” form of government, something that our fellow residents transitioned from during the mid-1990’s. Fargo is governed by the “Commission” whereas that commission directs its authority through a City Manager, who then passes-through that direction onto the public offices, agencies, public employees…
Under a Commission format, you tend to have a more ‘conservative’ based operated government.
Under a Strong Mayor, Strong City Council format, you get a more liberalized based operated government where the two publicly elected offices work side by side to oversee the government.
The Charter is granted to the “People” of Sioux Falls under the Constitution, its main purpose is to give to the people their own ability to self govern themselves, make their own choices, let alone gives to us to act through our means of our local subdivisions, the homesteads, farmsteads, organizations.
I agree with Joe, that no major change needs to occur here, but I would propose the concept to the C.R.C to adopt a resolution to discuss the future population growth, city council composition, the effects of at-large chairs vs district chairs, let alone the strong mayor/council format v commission/council format with a city manager type.
I would not change the government in haste or for sake of change, but I would allow for public discussion to be heard over a 5-10 year period of time as to not step on anyone’s toes.
My thoughts on this, is that IF we had an “Odd Numbered City Council of where each District was no greater populated by more than 29,000 residents, with no more than 1 At-Large Chair per every 3 district chairs, maintaining the Mayor as a member of the City Council acting as chair during public meetings, with a odd-numbered council, the people have the liberally constructed tie-breaking vote.
Under the current system, we utilize a Strong Mayor and a Strong City Council where each has its own distinct powers. The mayor has administrative and police powers, whereas the city council has investigative and policy making powers. The two counter balance each other under the charter.
Whereas the People have the ultimate authority to hold meetings outside the city council by way of the precinct committees and district forums, where they can alone, adopt resolutions and initiatives themselves, below them, the Mayor and City Council installed to watch over the City Beaucracy.
In my opinion, the smaller the district by means of population gives back to the people a more conservative, constitutional form of government, a well balanced government. Whereas currently, ‘we’ are allowing the districts to become to populated, whereas the ‘representatives’ are to far removed from the people themselves, and that leads to some negative effects, by means, they become more loyal to the mayor, and less in agreement with the people.
Would we be better off with a City Manager? the honest answer is, both forms can become corrupted in due time, as that person remains in his public office for long periods of time.
I honestly feel, ‘we’ are better off with the current system, as neither is seen as a long term office holder, neither the Mayor, nor the City Council need major experience to hold their offices, they simply need the full support and trust of the people of whom place them in their public offices.
A City Manager who would be appointed by the elected Mayor and Council, can become corrupt over time, as he becomes more accustomed to the political process, let alone gains power under the council
I think the biggest problem Sioux Falls currently has with the current form of government, under our Charter, is the fact that the “Directors” are not term limited, and act in a sense as “City Managers” overseeing each Public Department, Office, Agency, let alone Corporate Partner. I would much rather see, us slightly change the city council composition, to an odd numbered council, maintaining the Strong Mayor and Strong City Council format, while placing a requirement in the charter, that the “Directors” must be term limited at 8 years, nor more than two complete four year terms.
If you notice, that since adopting the charter, the “Directors” have pretty much remained in place under each of of the Strong Mayors – Hanson, Munson, Huether, and TenHaken.
While the Mayor and Council changes every 4 to 8 years, the “administration” has for the most part remained in full intact, allowing for a continued long term policy to remain in place.
That would not change for the better, under a City Manager, you simply gain 1 additional long time “manager” within the government itself, and nothing changes at all.
At least today, ‘we’ elect a new Strong Mayor at least every 8 years, while the Council flips every 2 years as they become term limited, hence, the greater ability to change the head of state, let alone, the greater means of removing, and replacing the Administration itself.
Therefore, in closing, I would not favor a change to City Manager in this sense. But there are things that we can do to slightly change the governing process, to further separate the two offices from each other, let alone break up the seemingly power hold the “Directors” have over the mayor and council the longer they serve in their present positions.
The City Public Works Director, Mark Cotter has served in that role since 2006, while the former City Planning and Zoning Director, Mr. Cooper held that spot for more than ten years prior to the current one. The “Administrations” have remained fully intact beyond the elected office holders leaving.
Good topic, great discussion, but I would much rather join forces with Joe Kirby in an attempt to simply create public discussion for the period of 2024 to 2028 at a time, where our population is seemingly rising greatly, whereas we are set to change council composition two times in the near future, meaning we would have changed council composition 3 times between 2020 and 2030.