Mayor vetoes council decision on grant

The topic of a Heartland Power grant awarded to the city for strategic planning, along with the council’s unanimous vote to return it, and the mayor’s announcement to veto the council’s decision drew a large crowd of local taxpayers to Monday’s city council meeting.  

The discussion was made public by an editorial written by Wessington Springs Mayor Kathy Voorhees (May 22, 2019) and rebuttals written by city councilmen Tim Holzwarth, Kim Schultz and Joe Hettinger (May 29, 2019). 

When the agenda item “Mayor’s Veto of Council’s Motion to Return Heartland Grant” arose for discussion, the mayor read to the council from a prepared statement for approximately 11.5 minutes which included her objections to the motion. 

She cited in length the annual audit, the terms of the grant according to Casey Crabtree from Heartland (no matching funds, no accounting ever required as to how the grant is spent, no timeframe for use of the funds) and her request for committee heads on the council to provide the mayor outlines of their plan for each department.

“Council has made no progress toward planning over the last year,” the mayor said, stating that committees have been unable and unwilling to move reports forward and to discuss planning with her. “These few examples provide a basis for my insistence that this city needs to establish some level of planning beyond the scope of the monthly council meeting.”

Voorhees continued, “A council who are inexperienced in the procedures of municipal law, and who are unwilling to admit or deal with the disorganization and inefficiencies that exist in the city office regarding overtime, organization and time management put this resolution forward solely to oppose the mayor. This behavior on the part of the council is negligent and unacceptable.” 

Voorhees then opened the floor for comment. 

“At this time I will allow any council members who want to address this motion and this veto in their own words.”

Councilman Joe Hettinger spoke first, stating that the mayor didn’t bring up anything about the consultant that she planned to use for strategic planning, continuing to say that after he conducted some research, the companies the consultant had worked for had “gone under.”  

“Thanks for throwing us all under the bus too,” Hettinger said. “I have knives and tread marks all across my back at the same time. And I don’t appreciate it.”

Tim Holzwarth responded to the mayor next. “You basically state in your words that it (the grant) could be used for any purpose you want, there’s not going to be any accounting  for these funds, that we can basically spend it on anything we want,” Holzwarth began. “That contradicts your application for one, and the other night I got an email from you that totally said we could do anything we want with this money.”

“And then in your letter in the paper, it called us, the council unethical, along with a lot of other things,” Holzwarth continued. “And it’s my feeling if we’re going to get this grant and the application addresses what it’s for and you tell us we can use it for anything we want, I find that to be quite unethical.”

Councilman Mark Gran weighed in on the topic and said that he called another municipality and a general manager of a company he works with. Both parties highly recommended using the grant money for a strategic plan. 

“The one person  did say that they like to use their engineering company because they have background on the  infrastructure of the city,” Gran said. “But they both strongly recommended that the city do something as far as a plan and somebody helping.”

Hettinger and Gran began a discussion on the differences between internal and external strategic planning and planning for infrastructure projects that committee heads are already aware of. 

“Spending money on someone telling us what we already know is wrong,” Hettinger said.

“I agree with you but I still think we need somebody to help get those plans into place,” Gran responded. 

Kim Schultz entered the discussion and brought up District III resources and the strategic planning assistance they could provide the city at a minimal cost, as the county and the city are both members.

“I just don’t think that we need to spend $5000 of grant money and  then another $5000 of ours,” Schultz stated. “I know you said it’s no strings attached but any grant that I’ve ever seen, they’re a matching grant.  I think that we can use our money a little more wisely.”  

Schultz continued, “In your statement in the paper it said it was free money. It’s not free money. You have to match city money with that grant funding.” 

Gran responded, “On that line Kim, I called Casey Crabtree from Heartland and he never really said either way. He never ran into somebody who didn’t want to spend it. Honestly I don’t think he could answer me if we had to match it or didn’t have to match it.”

Schultz continued with another question. 

“So basically you’re telling me we can take this money with no strings attached, take the $5000 and go fix a street up?”

Mark responded that Heartland stated that the grant is to be used for planning.

Mayor Voorhees added, “That’s the ethical part of accepting those funds.”

“Then you have to have some sort of documentation of what you’re doing with that money and where it’s going?” Schultz asked. “You’re trying to say there are no strings attached but there are strings attached.” 

“He said that money should go to planning of some type,” Gran responded. 

Councilman Holzwarth weighed in on the discussion. 

“We have an interest in working together, the disagreement was about spending $5000. Three of us are brand new, have not been given a chance to do anything and spent the last month in a totally embarrassing situation that was uncalled for. I think we can do this without spending $5000.”

Schultz said that he would like to further investigate the stipulation of the grant funds.  “I’m not throwing you under the bus,” he said to Voorhees. “I would like to talk to these (Heartland) people. I think there is some false information. Any grant I’ve ever been associated with, you have to have everything right down to the line and if you spend $5000 the city has to match the $5000.” 

Holzwarth said that he agreed with that sentiment. 

“If we could put it off until we’ve all had a little more chance to visit with these other people. This is the first time I’ve seen this,” he said. “Going forward I don’t think any grant for the city should be done without a city council vote. That was not done.”

City attorney Gary Blue stated that at that point, the council needed to take action or the veto stands. 

“You either need to reconsider or move to table it,” he said.

Kathy then shared several comments with the council and the audience attending the meeting regarding her plans to establish oversight and a planning structure since she became mayor last May. She also shared that she felt “blindsided” with events surrounding the Heartland grant. 

“Your observation might be, what is all this commotion over $5000,” Voorhees said. “This motion speaks to the council’s deliberate and well-planned strategy to refuse to communicate with the mayor at every opportunity. I could’ve waited until last week to post my letter to the community, but I posted it the week before, to intentionally solicit a response from the council. So the community could have both sides of the story.”

Hettinger responded to her accusations towards the council. 

“I think it’s a two-way street in working with you. You have to have a mayor that wants to get out from up on the hill and come down to city hall, go down to the city shed in person to see some of this stuff,” Hettinger said. “Go see Phil, see how things are  done. Go to Jimmy on Sunday when he’s pumping water. But no, we have to operate city hall up on the hill. That’s not how a leader does it.”

Gran made a motion regarding the veto: “I move to table this so we can make the calls we need to make and give us a little time.” 

Jason Hine seconded the motion. Aaron Roesler, Holzwarth, Hettinger and Schultz voted nay. 

The motion to table was denied and the veto moved forward.

“The grant funds will be deposited into the city’s account and the council just needs to decide what to use it for in a planning/training capacity,” said Blue. 

Blue explained to the True Dakotan on Tuesday following the meeting that the council’s two options were to table the discussion so they could gather more information or override the veto by 2/3 vote, or four votes. With only two votes to table, it was deemed that no action was taken by the council, moving the veto forward.