Lalley: Sioux Falls city councilors are only as influential as they want to be

Council was forced into a corner to rebuild Sixth Street bridge with bid that was $10 million more than expected.

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The Sioux Falls City Council listens to a presentation on accessible housing during an informational meeting on Jan. 17, 2023.
Patrick Lalley / Sioux Falls Live
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SIOUX FALLS — The mood of the city councilors ranged from frustrated to irate.

A few days before, they’d been told that replacing a downtown bridge was going to cost $10 million more than they thought.

And now they were being asked to approve the deal.

They couldn’t wait a week to think about it or learn more about the details. If they didn’t do it now, the bid for the project would go away and the city would have to start over.

Just getting more bids probably wasn’t going to help. They only got one the first time.

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The bridge is in disrepair, with the innards of its construction beginning to show. It’s a key part of nearby residential and commercial development that is underway.

How would you vote?

As you may know, the Sioux Falls City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 17, accepted the bid to rebuild the Sixth Street bridge.

The vote was 6 to 2, with Greg Neitzert and Pat Starr saying no.

Pretty much all the counselors expressed their frustration or anger with the situation.

Why were they put in this position in the first place?

It’s a good question and one that raises the issue of the balance of power between the mayor’s office and the part-time council. It’s been an issue since the early days of the City Charter in the 1990s and it probably always will be.

The system is designed to have a strong mayor, with the resources behind them to make the decisions that are best for the city.

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The council is a check against the power of the mayor.

But here’s the rub: The council only has as much influence over these decisions as the individual members want to assert.

It’s very much a personality driven operation.

There is always going to be pushback from the mayor's office — no matter who it is — against greater council involvement in decisions. So it comes down to how much each person wants to be involved.

We see that play out with every new batch. Some want to know a lot of details. Others are content to listen and vote.

Is one any better than the other? Depends on your perspective and philosophy.

It’s clear, however, that serving on the council takes a lot of time. Pretty much any councilor will tell you it’s much more than a part-time job.

And that’s fine. It’s part of entering the arena.

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But they could use some help.

The council has some research and legislative assistance. They may need more of an ombudsperson who advocates on their behalf.

That’s not to say that what happened with the Sixth Street bridge — or any other project in front of the council right now — is an example of corruption or anything like it.

Still, the potential exists. There have been problems in the past when the council was left in the dark or didn’t have all the information they needed before making a decision. (See the hulking parking ramp on 10th Street downtown.) There likely will be in the future.

We the people had to come up with an extra $10 million over the weekend to pay for a bridge.

The timing and how it all came down was not ideal.

There’s no debating that.

Related Topics: SIOUX FALLSSOUTH DAKOTA
Opinion by Patrick Lalley
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at plalley@siouxfallslive.com.
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