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Mitchell's city administrator talks first impressions, goals

Stephanie Ellwein, Mitchell's new city administrator, poses for a portrait Wednesday morning in front of City Hall on Mitchell's Main Street. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

It's been more than a month since the city of Mitchell's first-ever city administrator, Stephanie Ellwein, started work for the city.

The Mitchell City Council agreed to add a city administrator to the city's government last December. Ellwein, who worked as an administrator for Brookings County for 13 years, was announced as the first person to fill the new position in June. She started work in her new position in mid-July.

This week, Ellwein agreed to answer a set of questions posed by The Daily Republic. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: Tell me about yourself.

A: I grew up in Pierre, where most of my family still resides. I attained a bachelor's degree from the University of South Dakota and attended USD through USDSU in Sioux Falls for my graduate classes in public administration.

Even though I'm a USD graduate, I'm still a Jackrabbit fan after living in Brookings for 15 years and I thoroughly enjoy watching South Dakota State University football and basketball.

While I lived in Brookings, I worked as the community development director for the Chamber of Commerce for two years before I took my position as the commission assistant for Brookings County. I was the first person appointed to that position when it was created in 2001 and served in it for 13 years.

A lot of people used to ask me what my job with the county entailed. My best explanation is I coordinated anything happening on a countywide basis -- information technology, buildings and grounds, human resources, project management -- and did the day-to-day administration on behalf of the county commissioners. Those items ranged from economic development projects to building construction and budget administration, as well as technology and legislative issues.

Q: What are your first impressions of the city as a new resident of Mitchell?

My first impression of Mitchell as a new resident is very positive. The community is growing and the school system is highly regarded by the people who live here, which is always great to hear directly from parents. The city has unique industrial and retail developments, and resources such as Lake Mitchell, mountain bike trails and parks and recreation facilities are all a great draw for any family looking for a community to relocate. All of these items were considerations in relocating my family.

Q: What do you consider your job to be and what is your day-to-day schedule like?

A: I believe my role for the city is somewhat of a fluid, moving target at this point. In broad and general terms, my role as the city administrator is to provide a wider view of city operations, look for efficiencies in operations, help facilitate communication and issue resolutions with departments. Most importantly, it's to serve as a resource for the mayor, the council, the department heads and the public.

It's hard to give you a good picture of my day-to-day schedule because what it looks like now will certainly change as the city continues to change and progress as we look at new ways of providing services. During my first few weeks on the job, I have spent a tremendous amount of time meeting with departments to get a better understanding of their operations, challenges and other issues they may be facing, and familiarizing myself with current and upcoming city projects and city facilities.

Q: Why did you decide to take this job?

A: I was not necessarily looking for a new job when I applied for this position. When I learned of the opening, I was quite surprised to hear a city the size of Mitchell had not yet hired a full-time administrator or manager. I liked my job in Brookings County and the connections I made there in the community. However, it's not very often that you get the opportunity to start in a new position and watch changes happen from the ground up. That was the position I was in 13 years ago when Brookings County decided to hire the commission assistant, and seeing those changes progress was the single most rewarding part of my experience there. The opportunity to approach that challenge again, this time with a little more experience, was too intriguing to pass up. So, my motivation for taking the position is due to a desire to take on a new challenge, and the potential intrinsic reward of seeing changes come to fruition, and having a positive impact in the community in which I live.

Q: Why do you think you were selected?

A: I can't tell you exactly why I was selected, but I would presume it was because my experience of coming into an organization and starting from scratch probably fit well with the city's needs. During the interview process, I shared with the committee that my interest lies in city administration, not necessarily city management. My interest lies in doing the day-to-day administration on behalf of the mayor and council, as well as providing a resource for the mayor, council and department heads. I also have significant experience in financial administration and technology administration, which I think will benefit the city as well.

Q: What has your job been like so far, given it's a new position in the city's government?

A: It has been pretty close to what I expected, except the department heads have been much more receptive to change than I anticipated. I certainly understand a change in management can cause apprehension for those affected, so I was fully prepared for that type of response. However, the city's department heads have been very open about discussing issues and have even suggested things we can look at to operate a little more efficiently. That has been a very pleasant surprise I was not anticipating. I do have a running list of improvements I would like to see happen in the next one or two years, but I'm continually telling myself to just keep noting those items so we can accomplish one improvement at a time, and implement changes slowly and allow adjustments to occur.

Q: What are your immediate goals for the job?

A: One of my immediate goals was to get involved with the design discussions and review for the new city hall project. Having just completed two major construction projects with Brookings County -- a $1 million remodel of the courthouse and a $12.6 million city/county administrative building -- I was hoping to pass on lessons we learned from those projects as the city planned its new city hall. I would like to see improvement in the public's access to information and improvements to help department heads do their jobs more efficiently. But, most changes will take time.

I would like to see the city utilize more technology in an efficient way in day-to-day operations as well as council meetings and communication with the public. I would also like to see the city participate in a goal setting process so the mayor and council can outline goals to departments. This helps improve daily operations and the budgeting process, and more clearly defines the governing board's expectations. But, ultimately I think my goals will be determined by what the mayor and the council ask me to focus on.

Q: What positives have you found within the city's government so far? What negatives?

A: I have a high regard for the mayor as a leader of the city. He has a good working relationship with the departments and a tremendous handle on all of the issues currently affecting the departments.

The city's department heads have an incredible amount of experience and knowledge. That is extremely advantageous to me, as I'm able to gather more historical information about why things are done certain ways. I also think all of the city's staff are very open about discussing the way things are done. This is a great reflection of a collaborative working environment.

I think it's premature for me to make any judgments about negatives within the city's government. I do feel we could take greater advantage of existing technology and continue to improve and enhance collaborative efforts between the departments.

Q: What changes have been made so far? What changes are in the works?

A: Initially, I do not know if there will be any visible changes for those outside of the city's government. I have been working on incorporating more technology in the city's day-to-day operations. But, to be fair, I don't think changes will be visible during the first several months. It's critically important to have a good understanding of processes prior to making changes so you do not create problems elsewhere.

Q: What do you think your biggest challenges will be?

A: Anytime you suggest changing the way things are done, it creates uneasiness for the people it affects. I think the biggest challenge will be positioning the city to initiate some changes that will result in better operations, but doing it in a way so those affected buy into the process. That's always the struggle.

Q: How do you think your job will change over time?

A: I think each position and each organization are unique. However, I can tell you from my previous experience, you will see the administrator position become more involved in issue resolution and give more input on items that come before the council for consideration.

Q: What do you think of the multiple major projects the city has taken on all at once? (The addition to the Mitchell Activities Center, the renovation of the Corn Palace, construction of a new city hall, the renovation of the Mitchell Public Library and, possibly, a competition-sized indoor swimming pool)

A: The city has a number of ongoing projects right now, which I believe is somewhat reflective of the other progress and growth evident throughout the community.

I understand the concern about being overcommitted with projects that are incurring debt, while still trying to meet the needs of the community. I also think in order for a community to continue to progress, investments have to be made in infrastructure and facilities to continue to maintain a balance with that growth and progression.

Q: What do you think about the events that took place at the Corn Palace that led to Mark Schilling's resignation? Could someone in your position have prevented that from happening?

A: I have reviewed documentation regarding the Corn Palace's operations. Of course, it's much easier for someone to come in after the fact and see where improvements could have been made to avoid any potential improprieties. But, anyone looking at documentation after the fact would give you that same opinion. What I do believe is that when the city made the decision to create the city administrator position, it ensured all departments will have more day-to-day oversight in operations.