Growth drives need for big ideas on local government

SIOUX FALLS, SD — It’s hard to talk to Joe Kirby for long without the conversation turning to government.

Specifically, the idea that the way things are structured in South Dakota doesn’t always work for the state’s largest city.

Joe, as many will recall, was one of the architects of Sioux Falls’ push to embrace the interior system in the early 1990s, which led to the overhaul of city government. Our current strong mayor system with a part-time city council is the product of this change which began in 1994.

One can quibble about the effectiveness of our current local government, but overall most would agree that the change was good. The old city commission, in which five separate elected members oversaw specific areas of government operations, from public safety to public works, was ill-prepared for the complexities of growth that were already upon us.

It’s hard to predict exactly how this would work today, but it’s not hard to envision a rather chaotic environment, a sort of federation of individual fiefdoms.

The Kirby Dog Park in downtown Sioux Falls.

City of Sioux Falls

The Kirbys are a Sioux Falls legacy family that has been around since the state’s earliest days. They built a financial empire in the surety business before selling the business in 1992.

Today, you see the family name attached to features at the Washington Pavilion, Avera McKennan Hospital, Levitt at the Falls, and the Downtown Dog Park, among other philanthropic works.

Which just suggests they have the means and the connections to influence change.

Joe Kirby.jpg
Joe Kirby walks his dog Holmes in downtown Sioux Falls.

Joe Kirby / Contributed

I met Joe recently at a rooftop event at Railyard Flats, one of those rehab projects that have converted old industrial buildings into upscale lofts and retail in downtown East Bank.

As noted above, our conversation quickly turned to the philosophy of local government.

It wasn’t completely by chance.

Joe recently started a blog where he posts comments on the state of affairs and what changes he thinks would be beneficial. You can read his ideas at

I told him that I had read and enjoyed his messages.

A recent article touched on the notion of how Minnehaha and Lincoln counties would be better served by adopting a self-government charter, similar to what the city did three decades ago. The upside, says Joe, is that you could eliminate a range of elective jobs that are essentially administrative in nature – such as auditor, treasurer and registry of deeds – and hire competent staff.

Despite the details of this plan, it led us to discuss the idea of ​​a metropolitan government for Sioux Falls.

It’s an intriguing idea as the city continues to grow. One ring to rule them all, to use an expression from JRR Tolkien.

Consider all the different levels of government and authority in the four counties that make up the Sioux Falls metropolitan area. It’s a bit overwhelming and probably not as responsive to the needs of the over 300,000 people who live here as we’d like.

Just inside the city limits of Sioux Falls, there are seven separate school districts.

There are four sheriffs in the subway.

Twenty county commissioners.

And who knows how many dog ​​catchers. (Probably not that much but it’s interesting to think about and funnier than the listener.)

It’s also a huge undertaking.

In the coming months, I plan to explore some of the possibilities for operation in Sioux Falls.

If you have any thoughts on the idea, drop me a note.

I suspect we’ll hear more from Joe Kirby as well.

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