TUPPER: Mitchell’s paralysis is a problem of leadershipSomeone whose opinion I respect asked me recently if I think Mitchell is “paralyzed.” The question stemmed from the latest in a string of City Council actions to get pummeled in the local court of public opinion.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
Someone whose opinion I respect asked me recently if I think Mitchell is “paralyzed.”
The question stemmed from the latest in a string of City Council actions to get pummeled in the local court of public opinion. This time around, it was the council’s decision to switch from one-way to two-way traffic on Second, Third and Fourth avenues. Petitioners turned in enough signatures this week to refer that decision to a future election, probably in June.
The referendum could join a list of recent rejections our elected leaders have suffered at the hands of voters. I recounted that history in a column earlier this year, and today I offer an abbreviated version: last June, voters rejected the addition of a city manager to city government; last year, voters rejected a proposal to allow Sunday off-sale liquor; in 2007, voters rejected a property tax increase for a proposed arena and also rejected a repeal of the malt-beverage license cap; and in 2005, voters rejected a public funding package for a proposed convention center.
Even a successful ballot issue was an example of how the public has consistently denounced Mitchell’s leaders. That was the initiative passed in 2010 to designate all the publicly owned land around Lake Mitchell as park land, which arose in opposition to a City Council attempt to trade away some of the land.
Without debating the rightness or wrongness of any of the specific proposals listed above, we can probably agree that changing the status quo in Mitchell has become very difficult. So the allegation of paralysis in Mitchell is correct, at least in terms of civic affairs.
Some city leaders probably blame the public and the referendum process. I think it’s the other way around. If this city is paralyzed, it’s because of ineffective elected leadership.
Two recent examples of effective leadership prove the point: the elimination of the state’s budget deficit by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, and the voter-approved Sioux Falls events center plan shepherded by Mayor Mike Huether.
Both men conducted veritable clinics in issue-based elected leadership, and their actions provide the following blueprint for others to follow.
* Run a campaign acknowledging the key issue of the moment and establishing the candidate as a leader who can achieve a solution, but stop short of proposing a too-specific plan that will get picked apart before it has a chance to succeed.
Daugaard campaigned on his personal history as a frugal, down-to-earth leader. He acknowledged the state’s tough fiscal situation but, rather than announce a laundry list of cuts, attempted only to convince voters that he could be trusted to formulate a fiscally responsible budget.
Huether did much the same, at least as far as I could tell, by campaigning as somebody who could finally succeed where others failed in building support for an events center. His detailed events center proposal came later.
* Once elected, relentlessly sell a detailed action plan — not just to other elected leaders, but directly to the public.
Daugaard pitched his budget cuts across the state at public meetings and to media outlets. By the time the legislative session rolled around, he had done such an early, effective and persistent job that there was no opening for any other plan to gain traction.
Huether did the same thing, getting out of his office and using his bully pulpit to aggressively sell his events center plan throughout the city.
* When the time comes for other elected leaders to consider the plan, allow a thorough and open debate and be considerate of minor changes, but hold firm to bedrock principles.
Daugaard did this by stepping back, allowing the debate to play out in the Legislature, and agreeing to modifications that lessened cuts to K-12 education and Medicaid. Meanwhile, he stayed absolutely committed to the overall goal of eliminating the structural deficit.
Huether followed suit, engaging in a public debate and acknowledging disagreements but holding fast to his preferred events center plan and location.
* Finally, stay above the fray.
Daugaard was doggedly determined to balance the budget, but when opposition arose, he didn’t vilify his enemies. I don’t know much about Huether’s conduct leading up to the Sioux Falls events center election, but I did watch his press conference following the election and saw him graciously commend his opponents for their dedication and passion.
Elected leaders in Mitchell are not following the blueprint. They’ve been stumbling around for a long time with a vague idea that they ought to do something about the shrinking number of state tournaments and tourists at the Corn Palace, but no elected official has crystallized that wish into a detailed and aggressively marketed plan.
Most, if not all, of the failed proposals I listed earlier in this column were the product of task forces, committees or private interest groups that did the heavy lifting while our elected officials stood on the sidelines. During the run-up to the 2007 arena election, some of our elected officials would not even divulge their opinion about the proposal.
In the near future, another watershed moment will arrive. A Corn Palace improvement plan is being hatched by yet another committee with the aid of a consultant as our elected leaders watch and wait.
Unless our elected leadership grabs hold of that plan and follows the example of Daugaard and Huether, Mitchell is doomed to remain in a state of paralysis.