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Brookings city manager details 'high-stress' job

Every two weeks, Brookings City Manager Jeffrey Weldon walks into a City Council meeting knowing he could be fired. That's just part of the job, Weldon told members of the Mitchell Lions Club on Tuesday at the Depot Pub and Grill. He was invited ...

Brookings city manager
Brookings City Manager Jeffrey Weldon talks with the Mitchell Lions Club on Tuesday during a meeting at The Depot in Mitchell. Weldon was invited to speak about city managers ahead of the June 7 election, when Mitchell voters will decide whether to add a city manager to their government. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Every two weeks, Brookings City Manager Jeffrey Weldon walks into a City Council meeting knowing he could be fired.

That's just part of the job, Weldon told members of the Mitchell Lions Club on Tuesday at the Depot Pub and Grill. He was invited to Mitchell for the second time in less than a year to promote adding a city manager to Mitchell's city government.

Voters will decide if they want to do so in the June 7 election.

Weldon said a city manager can serve a city well, freeing elected leaders to create a vision for the city while a full-time manager handles daily affairs.

It's an important job, he said, but it comes with a cost for the man or woman who holds it.

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"It's a tough, stressful, demanding position," Weldon said. "I've got the battle scars to prove it."

Being a city manager is a high-paying job for city government in South Dakota, he said. Weldon is paid $120,550, and his benefit package costs Brookings another $30,398.10.

Under his employment agreement, Brookings must pay him a six-month severance of $60,275 unless he is fired for cause.

That severance could be a factor at any time, Weldon said. The job is tough on the person who holds it, rough on marriages and a "high-stress" position.

He's worked for municipal governments for 21 years, including 12½ years as a city administrator in Redwood Falls, Minn., and two and a half years as the city manager in Yankton.

He said a political dispute over a municipal pool in Yankton led to his departure there after a "toxic" political climate developed.

"I tell people I left for health reasons," Weldon said. "The City Council and I were sick of each other. Brookings is a much better fit for me."

Last week, Brookings Mayor Tim Reed spoke glowingly of Weldon to the Mitchell Kiwanis Club. Reed said Weldon was largely responsible for the growth and progress in his city. He is the city's third city manager and has held the job for three and a half years.

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Brookings has grown to 22,056 people, according to the 2010 Census, and is now the fourth-biggest city in the state, passing Watertown.

Weldon and Reed were in Mitchell last fall for a forum on city managers that was held at Mitchell Technical Institute.

State Sen. Mike Vehle, who served on the Focus 2020 Governmental Structures Subcommittee that recommended the city add a city manager, introduced Weldon and asked some questions during the 45-minute presentation Tuesday.

Weldon also took questions from the audience. Mayor Lou Sebert and City Attorney Randy Stiles were among the guests at the luncheon.

Weldon said he feels a city manager has two main roles: directing city staff while ensuring the daily affairs of the city run smoothly, and serving as the primary policy adviser for the mayor and council.

"It's my job to put things into effect and make them happen," he said. "What that does is free the City Council up for bigger issues."

Weldon said he holds weekly meetings with department heads and stays in close touch with the mayor and members of the Brookings City Council.

Opponents of adding a city manager to Mitchell government have had two main criticisms: It adds another layer of government and it is expensive, since hiring a city manager will likely cost the city $110,000 plus benefits, Weldon said.

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"To a certain extent, that is true," he said of the criticisms. "We don't work cheap."

But Weldon said he feels hiring a city manager is money well spent.

"I would argue that they're an investment," he said.

Cities that add a city manager realize "huge savings in the long run," Weldon said, and he noted he has always turned in a balanced budget to cities he has worked for during his career. The Brookings City Council mandated his budgets not exceed a 2.5 percent growth rate, and he said he has met that.

Weldon said he encourages open communication between elected officials and city staff and tells new members of the council to call a department head if they have a question, since he probably won't have an answer for them, anyway.

He said it's not his job to be an expert on everything, although he said he has a lot of experience writing grants and in other areas of government. A good city manager does just that, Weldon said: He manages the city while elected leaders set the course and city staffers get the work done.

"I am a jack of all trades and a master of none," he said.

Weldon has a bachelor's degree with a major in political science from Moorhead State University, in Moorhead, Minn., (now called Minnesota State University Moorhead) and a master's in public administration from Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minn. He will soon begin work as an adjunct professor of political science at South Dakota State University in Brookings, he told the audience Tuesday.

Jerry Hinkle, of Mitchell, isn't a member of the club but attended the meeting to listen to Weldon. Hinkle said he came away impressed.

"He showed the manager form of government might be a good thing for a growing city like Mitchell," he said.

Weldon worked as a policy analyst for the Minnesota state Senate before taking his first job for a city, so he is used to working with politicians, Vehle said in his introduction.

Weldon said he admires Mitchell for engaging in a very public process about the shape of its civic government.

"I'm glad the city is having this kind of a dialogue," he said.

That "dialogue" will continue on Thursday, June 2, when Lt. Gov. Matt Michels will speak on the topic to the Rotary Club.

That same night, a forum on the city manager question, which will also feature candidates for the Mitchell City Council, will be held at 7 p.m. at the MTI amphitheater, 1800 E. Spruce St. The forum is sponsored by the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Daily Republic will webcast the forum live at www.mitchellrepublic.com .

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