In Parkston mayoral contest, transparency emerges as one central issue
The April 11 contest has become mired in controversy as the outgoing mayor of 20 years was hired as a city 'consultant' with little public notice.
PARKSTON, S.D. — For the first time in 20 years, Parkston is set to get a new mayor.
Facing off in the election, set for Tuesday, April 11, is Tim Semmler, a former alderman in the city, and Corrinna Wagner, a current alderwoman and former chief of the police department.
In last year’s election, Wagner defeated Semmler for her current position on city council by a handful of votes.
Only a few months earlier, Wagner resigned from her post as chief of police in the city, telling the Mitchell Republic it was a “heartbreaking” decision.
For Semmler, the election is about continuing some of the growth he helped oversee for two decades on the city council.
“When I was on city council for the prior 20 years there were some projects that were in the works when I lost my seat on the city council,” Semmler said. “I'm very much up to date with how they are progressing and where they're at. Parkston is a great place to grow. Born and raised there. I just want to keep Parkston a community where people want to move into and start a business or a family.”
In an interview on April 7, Wagner also pointed to a long history of service in the city, where she’s lived since 2008, though she’s called the area home since 1989.
“I'm here to make Parkston better, and help it continue to grow and prosper. We definitely want to keep bringing families into town, helping bring businesses and have them flourish in the town,” she said. “I'm also a big one with transparency in government.”
Wagner also noted that she hopes to improve the connection between city government and young people, one potential answer to the growing problem of young adults moving away from Parkston.
James Weiss, a local resident and former planning and zoning administrator, said transparency is one of his top issues, too.
“I'm supporting change and transparency, and I believe Wagner will bring that to the mayor’s office,” Weiss said. “And if Tim gets elected, I hope he brings the same transparency and change.”
Current mayor to stay on as city ‘consultant’
One somewhat peculiar piece of context in the election is that the current mayor, Dave Hoffman — who has spent 38 years in city government and 20 of those years as mayor — is planning to continue his work in Parkston with a recently created position.
Following an executive session at a recent Equalization meeting, the city council voted unanimously to hire Hoffman as a “consultant” for $1,000 every two weeks after his term ends.
That salary is well above the current pay offered to the mayor, which the city council increased to $678 per month and $100 per meeting earlier this year. Members of the city council earn $125 every two weeks and $100 per meeting.
For Wagner, one of six votes in favor of the decision, her support came from the valuable experience Hoffman can offer to the new mayor, especially as the city undertakes a major water project requiring grant coordination.
“You don’t want to bring in someone that’s not been a mayor before and leave them hanging,” she said.
Hoffman felt similarly, though he made clear that he recused himself from the executive session where the council discussed the specific reasons for the position.
“Thirty-eight years I guess I’ve got a little experience,” he said during an April 7 interview, adding that he could help buttress the duties of Parkston’s financial office, which is not fully staffed at the moment.
Semmler agreed with the general reasoning on the part of the city council to bring Hoffman on as a consultant.
However, he was unsure if he would have voted in favor of it, noting there may have been details in the executive session, such as how long the position will last that could have swayed him.
“There are major projects going on that he has a wealth of information on,” Semmler said. “It’s taxpayer dollars that the current council wants to make sure are properly spent.”
Despite the potential utility of having Hoffman remain linked to city government, Wagner acknowledged that many in the community have made their opposition clear.
“From what I've heard from the community, it's not very well approved of,” she said.
Much of the opposition comes from the private manner in which the decision was made. Wagner said even she had no prior notice that the proposal would be discussed.
“The first time that it was brought up was in executive session,” she said.
Weiss criticized the move as flouting open meetings laws and skirting public oversight.
On the agenda for the March 20 meeting, which was supposed to focus on taxes, there was no indication that any personnel matters would be discussed beyond a reference to an executive session.
Weiss said he plans to look into whether the hiring of Hoffman was accompanied by “proper placement on the agenda, proper notice and proper use of executive session.” He argued that South Dakota’s executive session laws are clear on what can and can’t be discussed; the law appears to exclude discussions over “any independent contractor” from taking place in closed session.
Hoffman vehemently disagreed with this characterization and felt the law was followed.
“It was publicized, it was a public meeting,” he said. “So in a public meeting, you can have executive session.”
He also asserted that, while some in Parkston have likened the position to a city manager — which has a lengthy hiring process spelled out in state law — the position is purely advisory.
“They sure are all of a sudden showing [their dissatisfaction]. For 38 years they haven’t shown it. Nobody ran against me two years ago,” Hoffman said of the criticism of the hiring, much of it on social media. “If they were dissatisfied, I’ve got the petitions [needed to run a mayoral campaign]; they’re right here.”
The hiring of Hoffman as a consultant will likely be one focus of the upcoming council meeting on April 13.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.