Mystery, Confusion, Frustration

Mystery, Confusion, Frustration
Mysterious, confusing and frustrating.

Those words best describe an hour-long special meeting involving Vermillion City Council aldermen and the executive members of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company board of directors.

The session, held over the noon hour Monday in the William J. Radigan Fire Hall, concluded with aldermen deciding to let the VCDC's board of directors decide the future of the organization.


It also ended as mysteriously as it began. Alderman Roger Jeck, who was rebuked during much of the meeting by two of the VCDC board members – Nikki Peters and Tim Tracy – and by some of his fellow city councilmen, recused himself from voting on a motion to let the VCDC board decide its future without interference from the city council.

Mayor Dan Christopherson added to the confusion. During a voice vote on the motion, he was the only member of the council to vote no. When Alderman Jack Powell stated that he thought he was voting on whether to allow Jeck to recuse himself, Christopherson called for a second, roll call vote on the motion.

The mayor voted in favor of the motion the second time.

Mystery

Before Christopherson called the meeting to order, Powell and Alderman Mary Edelen asked why the meeting was called. The meeting's agenda simply stated "Educational Session with VCDC Officers."

"Is there going to be any specifics about what this agenda item is all about, or is this just going to be a free-for-all?" Edelen asked. "There are no specifics with this."

"It's more of a discussion than anything," Christopherson replied. "I think in a minute you'll probably have a handle on it."

"This is so open it could be anything," Edelen said.

Christopherson explained that the meeting was requested by Jeck, who is a member of a VCDC committee charged with searching for a new executive director for the organization.

"He at least wants a discussion on how the structure of the VCDC should be going forward, whether it should remain a combination organization or whether it should be possibly split up into development and Chamber," the mayor said.

Jeck told the aldermen and VCDC board members present at the meeting that he has been in contact with Bill Richardson of the political science department at The University of South Dakota.

"I've been looking for information on where to go forward with Chamber and (economic) development after all the stuff that has gone on."

The "stuff" Jeck was describing is the turmoil experienced at the VCDC office in recent months. Tina Harnois, the organization's program director, resigned in early November after VCDC officials found financial discrepancies and asked an auditor and law enforcement to investigate.

Harnois was indicted by a Clay County grand jury Jan. 11 on 28 counts of forgery and one count of grand theft.

Jeck said Richardson put him in contact with Bill Anderson of the South Dakota Research Bureau, who has agreed to speak to the city council at their noon special meeting on Monday, Feb. 4.

"It seems like a good opportunity for us all to build consensus on where we are going," Jeck said.

Jeck sent an e-mail to fellow members on the VCDC's subcommittee that is in charge of searching for a new executive director for the organization after Lisa Ketcham's departure in March. That bit of information lifted some of the mystery from the proceedings. The VCDC executive board members' presence was in response to Jeck's actions.

"We are under the impression that the city, based on (Jeck's) letter, is interested in gathering more information on an economic developer," said Peters, the incoming president of the VCDC board, "either being at the VCDC or possibly being moved to the city, and that's what we'd like to discuss."

Frustration

Tracy told the council that the VCDC often has conducted "retrospective reviews" to insure that financial and other goals that were formed when the Chamber and development company were merged several years ago continue to be met.

"We really felt we've done a good job of doing that. So twice now in the past few months, it's been quite a surprise to us that one member that sits on the board, and that would be Roger, has taken two opportunities now to derail, in my mind, the direction that we're heading."

It happened the first time, Tracy said, last Nov. 19 when Jeck chose to be the only council member to oppose making a routine payment from the city to the VCDC.

"It's his prerogative," Tracy said, "but it's certainly difficult when he's sitting on the board of directors (of the VCDC) as the city appointee."

Tracy said he believes Jeck has only compounded problems by talking to outside parties last week about lining up speakers to speak to the city council about the VCDC's structure.

Opportunistic

"It's really difficult to plan and go forward," he said, "when there's a real uncertainty on whether the city is going to elect to take economic development under its wing."

The VCDC board, Tracy said, has to deal with a change of philosophy on part of the city council that wasn't present several months ago when aldermen approved the organization's budget.

"It seems to me that it's opportunistic on a couple of people's parts in order to derail what some people thought shouldn't have happened a couple years ago, and that was the combination of the VDC and the Chamber," Tracy said. "It seems to me that there is an ulterior motive in doing that."

He said it appears Jeck wants to steer the community's economic development efforts away from the VCDC and make them part of city government.

Tracy said there are good, hard-working people employed by the city. "But there are some restrictions that city government has that don't lend themselves to economic development. Open meeting rules for example – it's a crucial piece of economic development that you not be subject to some of those open meeting rules."

"We are a political body. We are elected officials," Edelen said to Jeck, "and that puts us in a much different position than the VCDC. We're supposed to contact our constituents. That's politics, Roger. And sometimes it's pure and clean, and sometimes it's fairly dirty.

"If we're talking about economic development, we don't want this body (the city council) to get messed up with what the VCDC has to do," she said.

Christopherson told Tracy that he called the special meeting because he'd rather err on the side of too much discussion rather than not enough discussion. Instead of fearing that Jeck's recent actions are derailing progress at the VCDC, the mayor indicated that he is looking forward to hearing speakers from other communities.

"I want to get your input," he told the VCDC board members, "but I also want to get the input from the other folks that we may be hearing from."

VCDC board member Jerad Higman told council members that it would be a mistake to put local government in charge of Vermillion's economic development.

"Government is not as efficient as the private sector," he said, "especially when it comes to this. Government doesn't have a pulse on what's going on, and if government has to compete against other economic development companies that are private, government is going to lose, all day long."

Christopherson again stated that he would like to continue to gather information on the pros and cons of separating the VCDC.

"The people who are sitting on the search committee needs to get moving, and time is very valuable in this situation," said VCDC board member Farron Pratt. "This is only going to prolong that process and delay the process. I guess what we would like to have is a consensus from the city council that you'll be behind the VCDC board of directors as it moves forward to fill that position, and not at this point in time look at separating the two organizations and putting economic development under the city's wing.

"Otherwise, it's almost impossible for us to move forward," he said.

Disrespectful

Peters noted that the council members' lack of information about something as vital as the reason Monday's meeting was called is a sign that someone is breaking the chain of communication between the VCDC and the city.

"We've known since last Thursday when we got the e-mail (written by Jeck)," Peters said. "There is a broken chain, and that makes it very difficult. It is also disrespectful, because we are volunteers, and we are committed 100 percent to what we are doing.

"It is very hard," she said, "when we also come here and you want communication. You have a city manager and a representative to communicate what goes on at our meetings. Reflective of the broken chain of communication, possibly, is you don't know why you are here. I can't tell you how sincerely hurtful it is to give up more volunteer time to help with the city council members in the process of moving forward, and you don't know why you are here."

Jeck's e-mail, she said, symbolizes yet another barrier from him in that process.

"This is difficult. This is very difficult because it's a roadblock, and I guess what we need right now," Peters said, "is respect as the board. What's happening to us today is probably one of the most unprofessional, difficult things I've ever encountered."

Faith in VCDC board

"I'm comfortable that the board that you folks have can make the decision on whether you need to be one body or two bodies," Powell told the VCDC representatives. He made a motion that the council support the VCDC board's decision on the organization's future structure.

"I'm kind of disappointed that you are trying to paint me in this troublemaker light," Jeck said to Tracy, "but I'm okay with that. My sense is I'd like to gather this information and quickly thereafter make a decision. My only agenda is to figure out the best way for Vermillion to move forward."

Edelen noted that City Manager John Prescott, who is also on the VCDC board, has done an excellent job in keeping the city council informed of happenings within the organization.

"This whole controversy, after issues arose in the VCDC, came from you," Edelen said to Jeck. "It's sometimes good to ask those kinds of questions, but I think it's gone on much too long now. They need to get going on hiring their new executive director. If we delay that process, we're going to be behind the 8-ball, and we can't afford that. When an opportunity comes along, you've got to have a professional on board to deal with that, and we (the city council) shouldn't be the people to mess this process up."

"The ramifications of me voting no on this – - I want to be supportive but I also want to hear all of the information," Christopherson said. "I don't like the motion because it's going to make some of us look bad when it goes on public record statewide and community-wide that we voted no to support the VCDC or support the current situation."

Jeck requested to abstain or be recused from voting because, he said, he had a conflict of interest.

It was an issue that caused confusion. When the council voted on the motion, Powell believed he and other aldermen were voting on whether to allow Jeck to recuse himself.

Christopherson cast the only no vote on the motion. After Powell questioned if the vote was for Jeck's request, the mayor called for a second, roll call vote.

This time, the motion received an affirmative vote from every councilman present, including Christopherson.

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