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City manager debate isn't new; Robbie-led plan was rejected in '48

On a recent day at the Carnegie Resource Center, Mitchell Area Historical Society President Lyle Swenson, pictured here, displayed a collection of newspaper clippings about Joe Robbie, who was involved in a 1948 election on Mitchell's form of municipal government.(Laura Wehde/Republic)

The current discussion about altering Mitchell's form of government is nothing new.

A spirited local debate on the concept was held in early 1948, with proponents calling for the hiring of a city manager and the changing of the city's government structure. Rival committees were formed, forums and debates were held and press releases were issued.

Blow-by-blow coverage of the public debate was featured in The Daily Republic and a weekly newspaper, the Mitchell Gazette.

The leading proponent of the change was Joe Robbie, who was a local lawyer and professor at the time and would go on to national fame as the owner of the Miami Dolphins.

"If America had been afraid of a change, we would not live in a democracy," Robbie said during the campaign. "The time for change to efficient city government is now."

He led a spirited effort to alter the city's government, but in the end, his group was stopped short of the goal.

Two votes were held -- one to hire a city manager, and one to change the mayor-alderman form of government to a commission system. Both changes were defeated on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1948. The city manager proposal failed 1,790-1,509, and the change to a commission form of government was rejected 1,853-1,417.

For the past six-plus decades, the issue rarely if ever surfaced in city politics, according to local politicians and historians.

Former Davison County Sheriff Lyle Swenson compiled a file of newspaper clippings on the 1948 debate and campaign. Swenson, the president of the Mitchell Area Historical Society, said he doesn't think the concept of altering Mitchell's city government has ever been discussed again, until now.

He attended a forum on the issue June 14 and said he favors a full-time executive for the city. But Swenson, 75, said that unlike the 1948 advocates who called for hiring a city manager, he favors making Mitchell's mayor a full-time paid position as Sioux Falls and Rapid City have done. The city currently pays the mayor a part-time wage and has no city manager or administrator.

Mark Buche, chairman of the Focus 2020 planning group that proposed the switch to a full-time executive, said he had not done any research on the 1948 Mitchell election and knew little about it.

Focus 2020 Government Structures Subcommittee member Dusty Johnson said he didn't know much about the 62-year-old election but had looked at the history of city managers and administrators in South Dakota. Cities' needs have changed, Johnson said.

"Government is so much more complex now," he said. "That wasn't the case in 1948."

All the members of Focus 2020 favor a full-time executive for Mitchell's government, said Johnson, and most feel a professionally trained and educated manager would be best. That's a position he holds, as well.

Another forum on the proposed change in city government is set for 7 p.m. Monday at the Mitchell Technical Institute Technology Center.

City officials from Brookings and Aberdeen, which both employ a city manager, will speak. The public is encouraged to attend, and a live webcast will be available at

So far, the discussion over a possible change in Mitchell government has generated little public discussion.

Citizens were invited to speak during the June 21 City Council meeting, but no one took advantage of the opportunity.

A political fire

In 1948, the issue sparked a brief but intense political fire in Mitchell, thanks in large part to Robbie.

Robbie, born in Sisseton on July 7, 1916, is well remembered for being the original owner of the Dolphins, for hiring Don Shula as their coach and for helping to build an AFL expansion team into the best team in football by the early 1970s.

The Dolphins won three straight AFC crowns (1971-1973) and won the Super Bowl after the 1972 and 1973 seasons, with his 1972 Dolphins going 17-0.

Although he wasn't a wealthy man at the time he entered the world of pro football, he did have connections.

Robbie was of Lebanese descent, as were two other prominent South Dakotans: Sens. Jim Abourezk and Jim Abdnor. Another son of Lebanon was famed entertainer Danny Thomas, who was a close friend of Robbie and an investor in the Dolphins.

After he left South Dakota, Robbie lived in Minnesota, where he became friends with Hubert Humphrey, who during his career was the mayor of Minneapolis, a U.S. senator and the vice president.

Robbie had other connections with deep roots in South Dakota politics. The first commissioner of the AFL was a nationally known war hero and outdoor enthusiast, Joe Foss, a South Dakota native and two-term governor.

But in 1948, Robbie was a young lawyer, Dakota Wesleyan University economics professor and deputy Davison County state's attorney. He was also involved with the Mitchell Junior Chamber of Commerce and led that group into a political battle to change the way Mitchell's government was operated.

Former Sen. George McGovern said he remembers Robbie in Mitchell.

McGovern said Robbie was a junior partner in a local law firm and taught a business law class at DWU.

"I knew him casually," McGovern said. "He was a very dynamic man. Anybody that can create a formula for buying the Miami Dolphins and turn it into one of the most successful businesses in America had to be. He was also a very articulate speaker."

Battle lines drawn

Robbie, a local, state and national champion debater, moved to Mitchell in 1946 and began practicing law.

He had succeeded everywhere he had gone, serving as student body president in Sisseton despite taking a year off after his junior year to work at a Civilian Conservation Camp in the Black Hills.

He studied at Northern State Teachers College in Aberdeen before enrolling at the University of South Dakota, where he completed his undergraduate studies and started law school. Robbie's studies at USD were interrupted by World War II.

He served as a naval officer and won the Combat Bronze Star before returning to USD to complete his studies. Within a few months of his arrival in Mitchell, where his parents had moved in 1943, he was in the middle of the heated campaign to alter the city government.

Ellery Kelley led a group opposed to the change, The Citizens' Committee for Retention of Mayor-Alderman Form of Government.

According to a story about the group, Kelley believed "the present administration of the city of Mitchell has been chosen by the voters, represents its will and has been doing its job to the best of its ability."

He said the fact that taxes had not increased in the past year showed how efficient government was and that there was no need for change.

Robbie said he welcomed the opposition and said he was "happy" it formed. But he said it only represented an uninformed minority.

"We have noted a small undercurrent of opposition to the city manager plan and are glad to see it in the open," he told The Daily Republic.

But he said the Citizens Committee for Retention was bucking a trend of change, saying one in five cities Mitchell's size employed a manager.

"The record is clear that manager cities have the most efficient and democratic government, at the least cost to the taxpayers, of any cities in America," Robbie said. "If Mitchell is to expand in this post-war era, it must have the modern up-to-date machinery of municipal government that will permit it to have healthy growth."

Public debate

A forum was held on Feb. 14 in the Davison County assembly room.

Interestingly, the debate soon centered on Kansas City and Madison.

Kansas City had a city manager in an effort to break the hold the corrupt Pendergast machine held over the city and state. In Mitchell, proponents of the change to a city manager-commission form of government said that was proof such a structure was the safest and best to avoid political games from influencing policy decisions.

"The Pendergast machine was an outgrowth of aldermanic government," Robbie said.

But opponents argued that Kansas City was still corrupt. Kelley said despite 10 years of manager government, not much had changed.

"Machine domination which extends back for many years has been so strengthened in the past decade under the council-manager charter that the power has proved invincible," he said.

Kelley said his group feared placing too much power in the hands of one person and said the council may become a "rubber stamp" in such a scenario.

Madison also had switched to a manager form of government, and that was hotly debated here as well.

Herbert E. Hitchcock, a lawyer, former county attorney and U.S. senator from 1936 to 1939 who had lived in Mitchell since 1884, weighed in on the issue. Robbie was a junior partner in Hitchcock's firm.

Hitchcock said he felt Madison made the right choice.

"The city manager plan is the best plan for all the people," he said. "It gives the most efficient possible use of the tax dollar."

He said a commission form of government, where city representatives were selected by all residents and not by people in wards, was more democratic.

Of course, the response was swift and dramatic.

Kelley said Madison citizens were living under "a little dictatorship."

He released a statement to the newspaper quoting an unnamed Madison businessman who said the Madison city manager "who was imported from California" had seized too much authority.

Madison had been governed by a three-person commission before it changed to a nine-member commission with a city manager. Kelley, again quoting the anonymous Madison man, said 80 percent of its residents wanted to change back.

The Jaycees then had a Mitchell man, Lyle Shannahan, release a letter from his brother-in-law, D.W. Casey, of Madison, praising the new form of government. "Madison is beginning to go places," Casey wrote.

Ironically, Madison later discarded its city manager. It, along with Mitchell, Huron and Spearfish, are now the only first class cities in the state that have no full-time executive in charge of city operations.

A 'lively' campaign

The 1948 campaign was a "lively" election, according to the Sioux City Journal, which weighed in with an editorial.

A forum was held featuring officials from Aberdeen, Madison and Rapid City explaining the benefits of a manager.

A disagreement over the city's indebtedness surfaced. Robbie alleged taxpayers were not getting the best possible service for the money they paid to the city.

"The same kind of tax savings which city managers have accomplished everywhere in America will enable us to make necessary improvements at the lowest possible cost," he said.

Kelley and his ally, L.W. Robinson, spoke against the proposed change, terming it "experimental" and risky.

Even labor unions weighed in, with the Mitchell Carpenters Union, Local No. 1868, coming out in favor of the change.

Finally, after weeks of political debate and a flood of local coverage, voters had their say. They rejected the proposed change.

The defeat of the twin changes was covered with a large, top-of-Page 1 headline by The Daily Republic, but the story was far from sensational.

Kelley wasn't directly quoted but reportedly said he was "pleased at the results of the election" and thought it had been a fine outcome.

Robbie was absent from the story. Another supporter of the changes, Jaycees president E.M. Brady, applauded the large turnout.

"We bow to the decision which was against our proposal," Brady said.

He said the Jaycees were glad to have sparked so much interest in local politics and government. But Brady also took a final jab at his political foes.

"We congratulate our opponents for the vote of confidence given them by the citizenry," he said. "We leave to them the burden of proving that the mayor-alderman type of government can give Mitchell an efficient government, with the same full service and economy that the manager form is providing hundreds of other cities throughout the nation."

But Robbie didn't let the defeat get him down. He remained involved in politics and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1950, losing in a landslide to Sigurd Anderson. Robbie even lost Davison County, although by a small margin.

He soon moved to Minnesota and by 1965, Mitchell city politics was long out of sight and mind for Robbie. That's the year Foss, in one of his final acts as AFL commissioner, approved Robbie's ownership of the Miami Dolphins.

Mitchell's form of city government continued unchallenged, apparently until the recent Focus 2020 effort to take a fresh look at what caused all that excitement back in 1948.