With recently elected leadership, it’s expected that the City of Wessington Springs may encounter a few bumps in the road as new and seasoned council members learn to work together under the guidance of a new mayor.
But recent meetings have revealed tense interactions, stemming from election requirements not met within deadlines stated in South Dakota Codified Law (SDCL) and the way in which they were communicated between elected officials and employees.
“I see it as growing pains on the road to accountability,” said Voorhees. “I take full responsibility for my leadership, and each council member has the same responsibility to know the opinions of those they represent, not just their own personal opinions.”
On Monday, May 7, newly elected mayor, Kathy Voorhees and city council members Shane Fastnacht (Ward Three), Aaron Roesler (Ward One), Mark Gran (Ward Two) and Lloyd Kraft (Ward Two) were sworn in. Tim Azure (Ward One) was not present, as he was traveling for work out of state.
At the next regular council meeting held on June 4, 2018, when Mayor Voorhees announced it was time for Tim Azure’s oath of office, Councilman Lloyd Kraft presented SDCL 9-13-28. He said he read about it in the April 2018 issue of South Dakota Municipalities magazine. It states, “officials elected to office then have ten days after the first meeting of the month next succeeding the election to qualify for the office by filing an oath or affirmation of office.”
According to the law, Azure’s position had become vacant due to him not being sworn in within the aforementioned timeline.
Kraft said that he brought this to the council’s attention because he believes the council and city need to follow the laws of the state.
“If a council member is sworn in illegally, even a year from now, someone could point that out,” Kraft said. “That would mean that all previous proceedings were illegal.”
City Attorney Gary Blue said that the law also states that an elected official must be notified by the city election official, who in the case of Wessington Springs is City Finance Officer Linda Willman.
“Number one, she needed to give him notice that he was elected and she should have made him aware that he was in jeopardy of not being sworn in within the 10 day timeline,” Blue said. “The community voted for Tim and we need to serve the community.”
Willman posted notice of election results in City Hall windows the night of the election and former Mayor Melissa Mebius called Azure to notify him of election results that same night.
Voorhees said that she believes structure and mediation are needed to get everyone on the same track.
“My goal is transparency and if these types of manipulations are going to continue, they are going to be brought to the community's attention,” said Voorhees.
Fast forward to the July 2 meeting and the need to appoint someone to fill Azure’s position was near the top of the agenda. Blue stated that the law is clear and that a vacancy was created because Azure was not sworn in within the stated time frame. Additionally, he pointed out that notification must be given by the finance officer. Since it was not, Blue recommended that Tim be appointed as to not face legal recourse involving the city.
When the motion was presented and it was time to vote for Azure’s appointment, Gran, Fastnacht, Roesler and Azure voted aye. Councilmen Joe Hettinger and Kraft voted nay.
Voorhees read a prepared statement to the council saying that “those council members voting nay to Tim’s appointment, which is simply a matter of compliance at this point, will face direct scrutiny from the residents of this community for questioning the legitimacy of Tim’s seat on this council.”
She continued, “If the outcome of this appointment is not in Tim’s favor unanimously, the election official for Wessington Springs will be written up for noncompliance.”
Voorhees continued to speak to the council, “This personal attack on the legitimacy of Tim’s council seat in Ward One was unnecessary and reprehensible. The secrets and blindsiding personal attacks have to stop.”
When Voorhees finished reading her statement, she asked, “Anyone want to change their vote at this time?”
Hettinger responded with a question, “What choice do we have, we are being forced to change our vote.” Both Hettinger and Kraft changed their votes to aye.
Hettinger later stated to the True Dakotan, “Every councilman has the right to vote what he or she thinks on behalf of citizens of Wessington Springs. We shouldn’t be intimidated into a vote.”
During the meeting Hettinger also brought up the legitimacy of Azure being able to vote for his own appointment citing “conflict of interest.”
City Attorney Blue said he had consulted with colleagues within the Municipal Attorney’s Association and that no conflict of interest was present.
In a later interview with the True Dakotan, Blue cited Statute 6-1-17 which states, “No county, municipal, or school official may participate in discussing or vote on any issue in which the official has a conflict of interest. Each official shall decide if any potential conflict of interest requires such official to be disqualified from participating in discussion or voting. However, no such official may participate in discussing or vote on an issue if the following circumstances apply:
(1) The official has a direct pecuniary interest in the matter before the governing body; or
(2) At least two-thirds of the governing body votes that an official has an identifiable conflict of interest that should prohibit such official from voting on a specific matter.
Because council members get paid per meeting, albeit a minimal amount, pecuniary, or financial interest is a gray area. The South Dakota Municipal League was unavailable for comment at press time to further discuss conflict of interest and its implications in this matter.
As for Azure, he said that it is unfortunate that his term was cut short a year due to having to be appointed (one-year term) in lieu of the elected two-year term. “It’s right in Linda’s job description to inform council on certain codes,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”
At last Monday’s special city council meeting, Mayor Voorhees arranged a conference call with a consultant proposing strategic planning for the city. With a price tag of $5000 and a proposed start date in August, the council voted to discuss other training and planning options to help steer the city leaders on a track to success.
“I expected no less than total push-back after the election, and that is what is happening,” said Voorhees. “I believe structure and mediation are needed to get everyone on the same track.”
The next regular city council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, August 7 at 7 p.m.