Vehle, Olson clash over city managerOlson stands by 'hates democracy' accusation; Vehle defends himself
By: Austin Kaus, The Daily Republic
When Mel Olson told The Daily Republic recently that people who favor hiring a city manager either consider current and former mayors incompetent or “hate democracy,” state Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, noticed.
So, when Vehle squared off against Olson on Thursday night during a debate on the proposal to add a city manager to Mitchell’s city government, Vehle made his thoughts — and his surprise — at Olson’s comments known.
“I was surprised you would go and say all those 1,700 people that went out and collected signatures hate democracy,” Vehle said at the Mitchell Technical Institute amphitheater. “I think those are sound bites that are trying to irritate people.”
Vehle added that nobody on the committee that proposed adding a city manager ever said Mitchell’s current or past mayors were incompetent.
Olson stood by his earlier statements and said he does not see democracy as a sound-bite issue.
“If the mayor is not incompetent, if the ‘CEO’ is doing the job now, there is no need for a city manager, unless you don’t like the fact that we democratically elect a mayor that is accountable to the people for the running of the city,” Olson said. “To me, that’s a person who doesn’t like democracy.”
About 60 people attended the debate, which followed a forum featuring City Council candidates. The city election is Tuesday, and the polling place is Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary, which will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
While Vehle, a retired banker, appeared in a suit and tie, Olson, an American history teacher at Mitchell High School, was clad in a blue polo shirt that also had white stars, making it look like the American flag.
Olson called the city’s potential city manager an “expensive, wasteful addition of bureaucracy” whose salary would take money away from other worthwhile expenditures.
“The fact of the matter is that a city manager would be the city’s highest paid employee, and the fact of the matter is that money is going to come out of somebody’s hide,” Olson said.
Vehle said eight of the state’s 10 largest cities employ a full-time chief executive. Mitchell and Huron are the only two exceptions, Vehle said, and they also have the highest tax levies.
In addition, all four of Mitchell’s living ex-mayors and current mayor Lou Sebert support the concept.
“The mayors haven’t always agreed with each other,” Vehle said. “Despite all this, there is one thing that they agree on: that a city manager would be the most effective and most efficient move for Mitchell’s future.”
The debate included a discussion of accountability. Vehle said the city manager could be terminated by the City Council at any time.
Olson said five of the eight City Council members would have to agree on the removal — in other words, the city manager would only have to keep four people in the city happy, he said.
“People would have no other recourse other than every three years, they could vote out the people who voted for or stood by the city manager, which means it would take you potentially six years to change a city manager because you only elect four city council people at a time,” Olson said.
Vehle responded that people could contact the council members from their ward and voice their displeasure with a city manager.
“If the city manager’s not doing a good job and everybody wants him out, your phone is going to be ringing off the hook,” Vehle said. “If you’re not responsible to what the people want, then you’re probably not a very good city council person.”
In his closing remarks, Olson responded by asking what specific reasons a city manager could be fired for.
“What’s the tipping point? How many phone calls does that take before you’re a bad city councilman?” Olson asked.
After a question regarding the funding of a city manager’s salary was asked, Vehle offered no specific answer but said he believes the money could be found.
“I don’t think you’re going to have a problem finding that money,” Vehle said.
Olson responded that the money must come from somewhere and could result in the delay of road repairs or other city projects.
“The idea that somehow the city has $100,000 in a suitcase somewhere with ‘city manager’ on the outside is just ridiculous,” Olson said.
Most questions came from a three-member media panel. One of the more pointed questions was submitted on a note card by an audience member who asked if Olson wants to someday run for mayor, and whether that ambition might be influencing him. Olson did not offer a definitive answer, opting instead to paraphrase a Teddy Roosevelt quote about never looking beyond one’s current term of office.
“Serve in every office like it’s your last,” Olson said, paraphrasing the ex-president. “I plan on running for re-election (to the City Council) when I’m up next year, and I have found people who look beyond the next election tend not to have to worry about that, because they get beat.”
Vehle said he will not run for mayor and is not influenced by any designs on that office.
“I have no intention to run for mayor and no desire to be mayor, whether there’s a city manager or not,” he said.