Jodi’s Journal: Setting expectations for new city leadership

April 8, 2018

Sioux Falls at times struggles to find people to fill jobs in many industries.

But according to a study by Rice University, we’re outperforming when it comes to candidates for mayor.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled on this report, which found that about half of mayoral elections from 2000 to 2016 in six states studied were uncontested. The trend is toward fewer candidates, not more.

In Sioux Falls, though, voters have a lot of choices when they cast ballots Tuesday. This has been an interesting election for me to experience. I know many of the candidates well, and I also have worked about as close to the office as possible without actually holding it.

From three to five times every day, someone asks me what I think or what I’m hearing about the upcoming city election. I hope this means there’s a high level of engagement that will be reflected in turnout Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, I don’t say much. Frankly, I’m not hearing all that much other than the questions. My sense is that many people are ready for new leadership, but they’re not highly discontented with the state of the city itself.

And they shouldn’t be. Every city has challenges, but Sioux Falls has a lot of positives going for it. As someone commented to me a few weeks ago, “This city will make most any mayor successful.”

It has been good for me to see your reaction to how I’ve decided to handle election-related coverage. I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response I received when I said my company would not create or run political advertising and would not cover the campaigns themselves.

Instead, I focused on a few key issues facing the city, and dozens of you wrote or stopped me and thanked me for those pieces. I think we’ll continue to provide that sort of coverage. While they might not be purely business-focused, themes such as infrastructure, safety, transportation, neighborhood preservation and quality of life have a significant effect on our vitality as a business community.

But today, I want to talk a little about what I expect from our next city leader and what I think you should keep in mind as you set expectations too.

Eight years ago, as we were transitioning to a new city administration, I was serving as chief of staff to the mayor.

Unless you’ve worked in the public sector, it’s hard to understand how disconcerting it can feel to know that your new boss is going to be decided by a public vote. You know that the structure, priorities and dynamics you’ve become used to at work are going to change, but you don’t know how. You don’t know what preconceptions your new leader has or whether you’ll have a chance to weigh in on them. In most cases, you’re just waiting for direction from above.

So my first expectation is that our next mayor will ask questions and will listen actively before making any significant organizational changes. This is a process that should take time, especially for those coming in with little experience in city government. It doesn’t get accomplished in one meeting, one week or probably even one month.

As mayor, you inherit a team that is highly committed to the work of city government. There’s a lot of ownership taken at every level of the organization but especially on the leadership team of department heads. I cringe at the idea that these roles could someday become more like political appointments. That group must be treated like the executive team it is. They must be evaluated like the professionals they are and then empowered to act as such.

I also expect a mayor to build a leadership team inside his or her office. The demands of the office are too big to expect an individual to handle them without a high level of assistance. I don’t care what you call the position or positions, but these are some of the duties that need to be done:

Someone needs to be responsible for helping run the overall operation and execute the mayor’s vision. This requires a high level of internal communication, including facilitating communication between the department heads and the mayor, between multiple departments, from the executive team to the entire staff and from the executive branch to the City Council and its staff. That person should have authority to make certain decisions on behalf of the mayor, should be comfortable developing strategy and giving direction, and should have the ability to build consensus.

Someone also needs to be responsible for external communication. That includes timely, comprehensive responses to media requests and proactive strategies to inform the public about relevant topics. This person needs to be empowered to be authentic. People are too savvy to buy PR-style spin. And things are going to go wrong in city government from time to time. It’s a big organization managing a bunch of complex areas. Sometimes, human error is simply human error. It happens in your organization and in mine. It happens in this one too. You build credibility by acknowledging, apologizing if necessary and by improving.

And, finally, someone needs to be tasked with representing the mayor as needed in the community and the region. There are relationships that need to be fostered in the business community, in neighborhoods, in surrounding communities, with other elected officials, with other levels of government and with many other constituencies.

Throughout this campaign, it has been interesting for me to see what people’s perceptions are of the role of city government. I think I’ll write on this further at some point, as it relates to the dynamics between the mayor and council, but I thought for now it might be worth a quick overview of what I think you should and should not expect from your next mayor.

  1. Expect the job to require a high level of management ability. The city has more than 1,200 employees and a $450 million budget. Much of a mayor’s time is spent on internal operational issues that never make it to a council meeting or into the media.
  2. Don’t expect big changes anywhere without cuts somewhere else. Elections produce lots of ideas, and delivering on those campaign promises will come with a cost. Our tight sales tax revenue means there’s little “wiggle room” in the budget. Investing one place is going to mean cutting somewhere else, and I’ve struggled to find any candidate who wants to talk about cuts. Our debt load also is such that I don’t think you’ll find much support for new borrowing anytime soon.
  3. Expect to hear how the roads are already better by summer. I’m pretty sure as long as we elect city leadership in April, candidates will always be able to campaign on road conditions. And then the city will execute its maintenance program, maybe with a few tweaks, and by June or July the new leader can talk about how the roads are better. Our overall pavement condition index citywide is a 70 out of 100. We can look at it four years from now to see whether there has been a significant change. While the methodology has evolved with new technology, I can tell you it was a 7 out of 10 eight years ago.
  4. Expect some type of enhanced effort to address drugs in our community. That’s an issue that is not going to get better unless we do more. Our crime “problem,” if you want to say we have one, is largely a drug-related problem. But, really, the effects of drugs are felt in a lot of places that never make headlines, and we need to step up our efforts here for the good of the community.
  5. Don’t expect a lot of new jobs, higher-paying jobs or an influx of workers because of the mayor or city government. They are one piece of an economic development puzzle that depends on a lot of factors outside of their control. What we should expect is that our leaders listen when economic development opportunities arise, consider how to partner to harness them and continually invest in programs, projects and policies that are proven to be attractive to workers.
  6. Expect progress with downtown redevelopment. The city appropriately has slowed down its push to announce a first project at the downtown rail yard, but our new mayor needs to make this a priority. I’m hopeful we’ll get a look at the vision for the first phase of the project this summer. There are people waiting to invest in our downtown, and our city needs to work with them to make it happen while the market remains favorable.

Despite our challenges, it’s probably not surprising more people want to lead Sioux Falls than in many other places. This is a phenomenal city that in many ways is still just getting started. And for the right person, the job of mayor will be the best one he or she will ever have. I’m continually grateful I had the opportunity to serve as part of that office. I see the legacy those years left behind all around me in this community. I’m excited to see someone else keep building on it.

Jodi’s Journal: The core issue for our next city leaders

Want to stay in the know?

Get our free business news delivered to your inbox.

Jodi’s Journal: Setting expectations for new city leadership

Here’s an inside look at what you should expect from the next leader of Sioux Falls.

News Tip

Have a business news item to share with us?

Scroll to top