SIOUX FALLS, SD -
During the only presidential debate in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked a television audience whether they considered themselves better off now than four years ago.
While the leadership of Sioux Falls doesn't hold quite the same power as the presidency, there's been plenty of change over the past two years under Mayor Mike Huether. And the city council has certainly had its clashes with the mayor over some of the biggest issues.
One of Mayor Huether's trademark mottos is, 'Make it a great day.' He fervently believes the past 715 days have been just that.
"The work, the sweat, the pain was well worth it," Huether said.
Since taking office, Huether has admittedly approached the job like a businessman. As with any business, it's important to establish relationships to make things work.
"The people of Sioux Falls are pretty selective about who they elect to the various roles in city government," Sioux Falls City Council member Michelle Erpenbach said.
"This level is the level that serves the people and the people are quite vocal when they need something done," Sioux Falls City Council member Kenny Anderson Jr. said.
Eight Sioux Falls City Council members serve as the checks-and-balances to the mayor. And like all relationships, there's a bit of give-and-take.
"I've described it in this fashion for a lot of people," Sioux Falls City Council member Greg Jamison said. "It's really inter-office politics like everybody has at every job they have. It all kind of goes on like that."
But when you're legislating the affairs of the biggest city in South Dakota, inter-office politics aren't confined within the building. And nowhere was that more evident than the debate over the events center, where even the location split council members.
"You know, it's a sore subject because you have beliefs and you have ideas about what would be best," Jamison said.
Huether broke the tie in the 4-4 split between the Arena site and downtown. Once the public approved the building, city leaders had to accept the outcome.
"We're all big people," Sioux Falls City Council member Rex Rolfing said. "We all win some and we all lose some. And so, we just moved on."
"Yes, I was a downtown advocate in the beginning," Sioux Falls City Council member Sue Aguilar said. "I would say I have no animosity as we move forward."
"You play to win, but then at the end, you shake hands and you move forward and get ready for the next game," Huether said.
But considering how much the events center dominated the headlines, some question whether other games were even being played. There's disagreement over how much attention the project garnered.
"We could divide our time and we made sure of that, that we were not putting other issues off to the side," Rolfing said.
"This was a full-fledged campaign," newly-elected Sioux Falls City Council member Kermit Staggers said. "And just in the nature of being a full-fledged campaign, dealing with such a big issue as the events center, yes, it did overshadow many things."
Staggers lost to Mayor Huether in the 2010 election and will be the newest city council member at the end of May. While he's judging this from an outsider's perspective, he is still a member of the public to whom council members have to be accountable.
"We tend to, as humans, be very selective about what we hear," Erpenbach said. "And so, absolutely, if there's a project or an issue that's overwhelming the headlines, it's going to be the thing I snag on to just as someone who's observing the process."
And observers wanted answers on one of the other big issues that defined government accountability: the controversial firing of city clerk Debra Owen last September.
"I just hope we take a long look at that, make sure we do not make the mistakes that were made in that whole process again," Anderson Jr. said.
Anderson Jr. was one of three council members who voted against her firing in executive session. But even those who supported the move acknowledge that it was mishandled.
"There was lingering doubt, what just happened here," Sioux Falls City Council member Dean Karsky said. "And when you have a vote, you shouldn't have that question."
"All I remind you is that we made the best decisions possible based on the information we had at hand," Sioux Falls City Council member Jim Entenman said. "I made no apologies to what we did in that decision."
But with some citizens making an outcry at the very next city council meeting, the public's perception of the council appeared to change.
"I don't think citizens necessarily isolate out individuals; they paint it with a broad brush," Sioux Falls City Council member Vernon Brown said. "And in that instance, we failed."
Brown was also one of the councilors who voted against the firing. But eight months later, it would seem the council's trying to use what happened as a turning point.
"We have to work with the city; we have to bring back the confidence the city has in the city council," Anderson Jr. said.
"I think we're better positioned going forward to address and be more open to the public than where we ever have been," Entenman said.
"I learned from that and I'll continue to learn in the years to come," Huether said.
Although Huether says he was acting as a moderator in that executive session, he accepts he'll be lumped in with the city council on any controversial decision. And with nine different ideas on what's best for the city, working together has never been more important.
"We all have different personality styles," Huether said. "But ultimately, I think what this council has done is they found a way to work with me."
"Any time you put nine different personalities in a room and expect them to get along and everything to be all nice and cheesy, no, that's not going to happen," Anderson Jr. said.
And when you ask whether Sioux Falls is better off now than it was two years ago, the consensus isn't always clear.
"It's hard to say whether we're better off or not," Brown said.
"We have made choices that have created a very positive atmosphere in this city," Anderson Jr. said.
"I think Sioux Falls would've been a great place to be no matter who was the mayor, frankly," Jamison said.
Yet even with differing opinions, everyone agrees on what they want: a working relationship in a growing city.
"I think that we are all committed," Entenman said. "This city council is committed to the betterment of our community and I believe the mayor's office is too. We just need to make sure we communicate."
"We, at times, disagree with the methods and how we get there," Brown said. "But ultimately, we all have the same goal: moving Sioux Falls forward."
As for the mayor, he's looking forward to more great days ahead.
"This has only been two years," Huether said. "Just think what we can accomplish in the next two years working as a team."
Huether will give his annual "State of the City' address on Thursday, May 3 at Carnegie Town Hall.
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