Sixth Street bridge project is a focal point in the struggle for power between mayor and city council

Councilors were angry after they found out the deal was already done before special meeting on Tuesday.

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City councilors David Barranco (left), Rich Merkouris and Alex Jensen listen to Mayor Paul TenHaken during discussion of street funding on Tuesday, Jan. 25.
Patrick Lalley / Sioux Falls Live
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SIOUX FALLS – It’s not about the bridge.

The Sioux Falls City Council has been struggling for nearly two weeks over a $10 million bill it wasn't expecting.

Last week they voted to accept the $21.8 million bid from the Journey Group to rebuild the Sixth Street bridge downtown, after estimates for the project were $11.1 million.

Several councilors expressed their frustration.

Then they found out that the special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24, called to approve moving $3 million to pay for the project, wasn’t for that at all.

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That money would be used to “backfill” the streets budget to cover other upcoming bids.

The Sixth Street bridge contract was, in fact, already awarded and done.

The frustration with the administration under Mayor Paul TenHaken from the week previous had grown to anger, and defiance.

It wasn’t about the bridge, or the accounting or the legal language of contracts.

It was about the process. It was about who sets policy for the city.

It was about… power.

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Sioux Falls City Councilor Greg Neitzert.
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“I’m not going to accuse anybody of lying or even misleading us. But at the very least we were provided inaccurate information. That’s a big deal,” said councilor Greg Neitzert, who voted against accepting the bid last week.

“The council should be united on this and saying, with one voice, we cannot be treated this way and be expected to just roll over. Previous councils I served on would not have tolerated this. In a strong mayor form of government the council has limited authority to begin with. When it gives up the power it has, which is the power of the purse and our authority to award contracts, we become impotent. We become exactly the term that I bristle at when people accuse me of it, of being a rubber stamp.”

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Two councilors — Rich Merkouris and Sarah Cole — publicly questioned their own votes from the week before.

“I have significant regret over how I voted last week,” Cole said. “I think that going forward we really need to look at this process and not shoving things through because it doesn’t really help with transparency. There’s been a lot of unhappy people and I think that it’s justified.”

It's possible that the issue can be reconsidered at the council's regular meeting on Feb. 6 if one of the councilors who voted yes a week ago makes the motion. However, that would likely nullify the current bid, which means the process would begin again and there's nothing to suggest the price tag would go down.

Merkouris said he plans to propose changes to the process as “punishment” for his vote to approve the deal.

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Gregg Engler, assistant city attorney for the City of Sioux Falls, answers questions during a city council meeting.
Patrick Lalley / Sioux Falls Live

“I voted for last Tuesday’s decision, make mistakes, it’s done,” he said. “The public was pushing me pretty hard to vote no today because they were under the assumption that today would change last Tuesday’s decision. I just want the public to understand that what was written on the agenda was different than what we passed.”

While technically correct, the language from the previous week’s agenda also wasn’t completely accurate, said Gregg Engler, the assistant city attorney, under questioning from the council.

“The language that was in there, that said ‘subject to appropriations,’ I think that was unfortunate. It should have been lined out,” he said.

And that’s where the conversation becomes more about process, about communication and expectation, than the details of construction.

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The current economic situation is that an influx of federal money to build roads and bridges means the companies that do that work are very busy.

Hovering over the debate regarding the bridge in downtown Sioux Falls is the reality that it’s a difficult project. This isn’t a country road or an interstate highway. It’s a short span wedged between urban buildings on a bed of quartzite. There's just more risk.

“Clearly when the estimate was done, we just didn't recognize how full many of the contractors are, and the volume of work that’s coming. The estimate, in hindsight, is certainly low,” Mark Cotter, public works director for the city, said after the meeting.

“There’s just a number of factors that, quite honestly, are hard to estimate. Until a contractor actually starts to get into the plan, starts to sequence it, line up its subcontractors, that’s ultimately the day we know what the price is. We can develop an estimate, but it’s just that, it’s just an estimate.”

That’s a practical assessment presented in a political atmosphere. In the broader picture of who makes the decisions that guide the city on big questions and small, of who gets to sit at the table and be counted, Sixth Street may be a bridge too far for the city council.

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Sioux Falls City Councilor Pat Starr

“Power doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said councilor Pat Starr, who joined Neitzert in voting no to accept the bid. “They take over our policy making process when we don’t do our job. That’s what happened in this case and it happens all the time. It will happen again because until we stand up and do our job, and not doing the work that we should, and telling the administration where we want the city to go in making that policy and until we do that they are going to continue to make policy.”

The vote to make the supplemental appropriation to backfill the street budget passed 5 to 3.

MORE FROM PATRICK LALLEY:

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