During his successful campaign to become mayor of Sioux Falls, Paul TenHaken spoke early and often about the need for greater transparency out of City Hall.
Leaning on lessons learned from the previous administration, the former business owner vowed to keep citizens informed on matters of public interest to promote open government and avoid the appearance of impropriety.
That philosophy suffered a setback this week when TenHaken unveiled a 13-member “study group” to help shape the future of the sports and entertainment complex surrounding the Denny Sanford Premier Center, a matter of no small significance to Sioux Falls taxpayers.
The mayor’s handpicked committee will do its business in private – a closed process that is especially troubling since TenHaken has stated he intends to follow through with the group’s recommendations, pending city council approval.
“This doesn't become a binder on a shelf,” he said. “This becomes a plan we move forward with.”
Bear in mind that a city-hired consultant recommended last year that the Sioux Falls Arena be repurposed as an extension of the convention center and that the baseball stadium be torn down and replaced with a downtown version.
Now the topic is being revisited with a group that includes members of the hotel, construction, architectural and banking industries – all areas where avoiding questions of conflict of interest would be prudent.
Instead the committee will brainstorm in secret sessions and finish its work by mid-summer, with site recommendations subject to approval by the city council.
Citizens who footed the bill for the Premier Center, convention center, Sioux Falls Arena and baseball stadium will be largely sidelined during the process, which is nothing new at the events center complex.
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During Mike Huether’s mayoral stint, it took a South Dakota Supreme Court ruling to make public details of a Premier Center settlement between the city and contractors that stemmed from warped exterior panels on the $117 million facility.
Under TenHaken, we were left wondering for months about leadership at the Premier Center after general manager Terry Torkildson was dismissed without explanation in November by SMG, the company tasked with operating the facility.
SMG announced Friday that Mike Krewson had been hired as the new general manager, but there has been no further information on why Torkildson – whose tenure dated back to 1992 at the Sioux Falls Arena – was let go.
Opting to shrug shoulders and pretend the city has no control over who runs a publicly owned arena is a choice, just like the secrecy surrounding the new task force.
Huether, for all his transparency battles, had no problem with public meetings formed during his tenure to address annexation, urban agriculture, hotel tax revenue, billboards and public transit. If the response is that we need more secrecy surrounding matters of potentially lucrative development, that’s a bad answer.
It should be noted that there is also good news on the TenHaken transparency front. The first-term mayor did the right thing by making audio recordings of Parks and Recreation Board meetings publicly available – a source of major consternation under Huether.
TenHaken and his staff have offered regular access to City Hall inner workings such as transition team meetings while also providing more publicly accessible information on the city website.
But as we’ve said many times before, transparency becomes more difficult when controversy rears its head. We certainly hope that’s not the case as TenHaken’s study group decides whether to build upon the views of a professional consultant or freelance when it comes to the events center campus.
We would like to think that these are merely active citizens getting involved and sharing ideas for the good of the community. If that’s the case, let’s make these meetings public and hear what they have to say, bringing the kind of openness we were promised along the way.