HURON -- The mayor of Huron faces a possible recall election as the latest fallout from the sudden retirement of the city's longtime police chief.
David McGirr, mayor since 2007, could be fighting for his job in a summer election if opponents succeed in a petition drive to let voters decide whether he should stay in office.
The controversy relates to how McGirr and the City Commission handled the departure of Doug Schmitt, a Huron police officer since 1978 and chief since 1999. It also touches a nerve in a long-running dispute over immigrant workers while posing the question of whether a public servant is free to speak his mind on his own time.
An election to see whether McGirr continues as mayor could come by July or August. But the issue already has divided Huron, a city of 12,600 in east-central South Dakota.
J.C. Palmer, 60, who owns a hearing aid service, said he has gathered 100 signatures on a petition to remove McGirr, most from residents he's passed on the street.
"I think it's overdue. I think he's a runaway train," Palmer said.
Ron Volesky, a Huron lawyer and former legislator, said several residents are collecting signatures. They need 1,276 in 60 days.
"We have close to 600 to 800," Volesky said.
But other residents are saying not so fast.
"Most of the people I've talked to - they want to sign the petition. I'm not ready to do that," said Harold Owens, 91, a World War II veteran who ran a restaurant in town for 36 years.
"He's done a pretty good job," Owens said of McGirr. "He can't please everybody."
The dispute rises from events of March 7. Schmitt took time off that Monday to testify in Pierre for a bill that would make it a crime for South Dakota employers to knowingly hire illegal immigrants. The bill had passed the Senate and moved to the House, where it failed 35-33.
The immigration issue has dogged Huron for years. Last year, Huron police arrested 79 people for other crimes who turned out to be illegal immigrants, Schmitt said.
Illegal immigrants create problems, he said, but in his testimony, he did not name employers. Nor did he speak, he said, for the city of Huron. He said two legislators invited him to come.
"They didn't call the chief of police in Watertown or Aberdeen. They called the chief in Huron knowing the illegal alien issue is already present in the community," Schmitt said. "I took a vacation day and drove my own vehicle and wore civilian clothes. I registered my name and said I was representing myself."
Despite such precautions, however, his situation raised the question of whether it's possible for anyone, let alone a chief of police, to speak without representing his employer.
Schmitt said being chief gave him credibility on the topic and that his method of doing it made it a matter of free speech.
"I'm Doug Schmitt the police chief, but I'm also Doug Schmitt the citizen and Doug Schmitt the taxpayer. I should be able to testify," he said.
City officials thought Schmitt crossed the line. A commissioner was on the phone with him before he left the Capitol that day. He returned to his desk that afternoon but was told to go home. That night, commissioners put him on paid leave. Within a few days, he decided to retire rather than go into a disciplinary process he was sure would end in dismissal.
Schmitt, 55, married and the father of two, was making $77,000 a year as chief and was happy with the retirement package. But he didn't like how it came down.
"They put me on administrative leave and banned me from my office. I never worked another hour," he said.
McGirr said Schmitt might have put the city at risk.
"The city was concerned about some potential liability we may incur because of (his) comments," McGirr said. "So we put him on administrative leave while we investigated."
Commissioners discussed the issue with Gerry Kaufman, the city attorney, and with Lisa Marso, a Sioux Falls lawyer who specializes in labor issues.
"He submitted his letter of retirement before the process was completed," McGirr said. "It never reached the point of a disciplinary hearing. He was not fired."
Still, Schmitt's exit, effective March 31, has put the heat on the mayor. McGirr, 52, and his wife, Linda, run a printing business. He became mayor in 2007 by winning 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race. He won a second three-year term last year with no opponent.
He called the drive to remove him unfortunate.
"It had been rumored since the chief retired. The rumors ended up coming true. While I was disappointed, I was not surprised," he said.
He said it comes as other things in Huron are going well. The population is growing. The city is about to start a $12 million project to turn the old Huron University campus into a water park, recreation area and education center. He said a South Dakota business soon will announce an expansion to bring 25 agriculture-related jobs to Huron with salaries in "the $50,000 range."
Officials appointed Dennis Meyers, who had been Schmitt's assistant, to be interim chief. The city is accepting applications for chief until mid-May.
A recall vote would put McGirr on the ballot along with any challengers. If no one challenges him, he keeps his job, said Secretary of State Jason Gant.
Volesky said McGirr is "a nice fellow, a nice guy, but in this situation, I think he just - he and the City Commission - made a mistake that the people want him to answer for. I have nothing against Mayor McGirr personally. Nice people make mistakes."
McGirr, who receives a $25,000 salary as mayor, hopes people appreciate recent developments to boost the economy. He also thinks people overstate local government's hand on the immigration issue.
"I believe there are illegal workers in the Huron area as there are in virtually every city of South Dakota," he said. "We can't go door to door asking people to prove their citizenship. It's simply against the Constitution."
While Schmitt didn't name names in Pierre, Volesky was specific in an interview with the Argus Leader.
One problem has been hiring at "Dakota Provisions, the turkey plant, obviously," he said.
Jeff Sveen, an Aberdeen lawyer who is chairman at Dakota Provisions, said Volesky's comment has no merit. He said the turkey plant has multiple safeguards in hiring. Every job seeker provides some combination of a passport, green card, birth certificate, driver's license or photo ID, must pass e-verify and must satisfy a check on use of a duplicate Social Security number. If a red flag turns up, "they go to the Social Security office to clear it up, or we never see them again," Sveen said.
McGirr said all businesses have a challenge, including Dakota Provisions.
"I'm not aware of any illegals working there. I do know they have one of the most rigid methods of determining legal residency of any company in the state," he said. "But people can find ways to forge documents and get around that. I wouldn't limit that to Dakota Provisions. There are dozens of employers in Huron hiring people moving here from another state or country."