Mayor wants lawmakers to loosen grip on local issues

2013-01-06T07:00:00Z 2013-03-09T18:42:02Z Mayor wants lawmakers to loosen grip on local issuesAaron Orlowski Journal staff Rapid City Journal
January 06, 2013 7:00 am  • 

Many of the items on Mayor Sam Kooiker's wish list for the 2013 legislative session he would prefer to handle himself.

But because of state policies governing a city's legal authority, he must often work with lawmakers in Pierre, hardly a way to conduct business for a city of 68,000, he said.

"Think of how much more efficient we could be if we could make decisions like this at the local level," Kooiker said last week. "We'd still be accountable to the voters and we wouldn't have to go to Pierre and bombard them with requests every legislative session."

In the upcoming session that starts Tuesday, those requests will include rewriting maintenance service contracts, collecting money for ambulance services and the how to funnel money to a drainage utility the city hopes to establish in the future.

"It would really free us up if we had more local control," Kooiker said.

South Dakota follows what is known as Dillon's rule, which says that cities and local governments only can do what state law allows them to do. If state law does not address a particular issue, it must be changed to give cities authority to act.

Kooiker said that makes it difficult to manage the city in an efficient manner.

"We feel like our hands are tied because if we truly follow the letter of the law, there's a lot of things we can't do because the law is silent," he said.

Ten cities in South Dakota have escaped the restrictions of Dillon's rule by adopting home rule charters, which gives them greater flexibility to make their own decisions. Those cities, including Sioux Falls, have the legal authority to do whatever state law does not specifically forbid, which is basically the opposite of what Dillon's rule allows.

Rapid City is not a home rule charter city, which can only be created by a special election decided by local residents. With a home rule charter, Rapid City could set its own rules for allowing city hall to use credit cards for allowing electronic transactions rather than follow state edicts, for example.

Getting citizens passionate about these issues is challenging, said Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, which is pushing for more local control. The Municipal League won't bring forward legislation this year, but may in future years.

"It's hard to use 'The city can use credit cards!' as a rallying cry," Taylor said Friday. "The kinds of things we're talking about are not things people get excited about."

Most of the South Dakota cities that adopted a home rule charter did so in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Taylor said. Sioux Falls adopted home rule in 1995, she said.

"A city the size of Sioux Falls, the regular state laws just weren't working for them. They had outgrown state law," she said.

Ten to 15 years ago, cities had more flexibility, Taylor said, but a series of judicial rulings slowly eroded their authority. Now, Taylor wants to return to cities having greater latitude to do what good governance "necessarily implies."

Taylor describes this is a "blanket authority to do things that make sense."

Contact Aaron Orlowski at 484-7069 or

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