Joint Powers Board members and advisers listen carefully during a teleconference with the project manager and architect for the Brookings City & County Government Center. Pictured are (from left) Commissioners Alan Gregg and Dennis Falken, Commission Assistant Stephanie Ellwein, Deputy Finance Officer Stacy Steffensen, Councilor John Kubal, Mayor Tim Reed and City Attorney Steve Britzman. Photo by Ken Curley/Register
• Board a model of intergovernment cooperation
BROOKINGS – This week’s Joint Powers Board meeting proceeded without a hitch.
Apart from a minor glitch with the teleconferencing system – “user error,” someone jokingly suggested – the session was professional and mercifully brief: conferees heard reports from the project manager and architect, approved a few final change orders for the new government center and gave their OK to an operating-expense budget for next year.
No fuss, no muss.
Things haven’t always gone that smoothly, however.
Tasked with oversight during construction of the Brookings City & County Government Center, the Joint Powers Board (JPB) has ventured into political territory where others have feared to tread – and somehow, they’ve made things work. They’ve set a new standard for intergovernmental cooperation.
City Councilor John Kubal has been a member of the board since its inception:
“Truthfully, in the beginning – and particularly on the city’s side,” he says, “it was a little bit like making sausage – it wasn’t very pretty.”
The four-member Joint Powers Board is a new level of government for the City of Brookings and Brookings County: it’s not a committee as committees go, and although it sets policy, it’s not generally a rule-making group – decisions reached by the JPB members have to get full approval by the commission and the council.
It serves as both a manager of the city and county’s shared property and as a buffer between city hall and courthouse.
City Manager Jeff Weldon explained its function well in the dedication booklet for the new administrative building:
“Constructing an unconventional building requires an unconventional approach. Since the new Brookings City & County Government Center is owned jointly by two local units of government instead of one … all the steps involved required input, oversight and participation by both owners. While meeting as a combined body of the full city council and full county commission would have been cumbersome as well as contrary to the goals of streamling efficiencies, both owners decided to create a Joint Powers Board and delegate the project to this board.”
Weldon points out that boards like the JPB are authorized by South Dakota law. Its members have the same duties as their colleagues on council and commission, but more than merely being a liaison between the two bodies, the Joint Powers Board is actually the legal owner of the property.
Councilor Kubal’s reference to “making sausage” speaks to the board’s bumpy beginning, and the debates the members had with one another.
While the board was created prior to the start of construction in December 2009, the intergovernmental experiment actually started with a visit between then-Councilor Mike Bartley and Commissioner Don Larson.
At the time, county departments were experiencing a space crunch that was reaching crisis proportion, and while the city offices had enough room, the police department had outgrown its quarters in city hall and would soon need a new home.
Larson and Bartley explored the possibility of a joint law enforcement center, but the discussion soon focused on a shared administrative center.
“Why couldn’t we let the police have all of city hall, and we put all the other city and county departments together in one building?” they asked one another.
“I took the idea back to council to look at a joint project,” Bartley recalls. “We could move our space needs plan forward and help out the county at the same time. It just sort of made sense.”
A Joint Powers Board was created, with Bartley and Kubal representing the city and Dennis Falken and Alan Gregg appointed on behalf of the county.
The board was aided in its task by Weldon and Commission Assistant Stephanie Ellwein, and City Attorney Steve Britzman and Deputy State’s Attorney Mark Kratochvil provided answers to legal questions.
With involvement by the Brookings Economic Development Corporation, city business leaders and representatives from the city and county boards, things moved quickly.
Once everyone bought into the notion of a joint facility, Bartley says, “we narrowed it to sites, and in a fairly unusual turn of events – when all the neighbors wanted to sell – the current property became our obvious choice.”
There were some growing pains, according to Bartley. “Council and commission had never done anything of this magnitude (a joint, $14 million building), and at times things got a little contentious.”
That may be an understatement.
While the partnership proceeded relatively smoothly between city and county – with several notable hiccups – there was outright bickering among the council. Several councilors as much as said the Joint Powers people were botching the deal.
In fact, the intra-council criticism grew so harsh that Bartley quit in disgust. Criticized for the JPB’s building budget, Bartley resigned in frustration and in his own words “retired from politics” not long afterward.
“There are disagreements whenever personalities and politics are involved,” Bartley says today. And while he left the council, he continued his leadership in the community – he was BEDC president during the time the group fought for and won the Bel Brands USA cheese plant.
“A little discourse sharpens issues,” Bartley says. “It gives people a chance to express their views, and you fight for your issues. But finally, something becomes the will of the group, and you accept it and move on.”
There was major disagreement on the council regarding hiring a construction manager – some were adamantly opposed and rejected the idea the first time the group considered it.
County commissioners backed the plan, however, and council and commission ultimately reached consensus. The construction management process has been judged as one of the key reasons for the smooth and successful completion of the new building.
Another issue the Joint Powers Board and their parent groups had to work out was whether the new building would have a basement. The city councilors didn’t feel it was worth the cost, but the county, with decades of paper records, insisted on building one, both for mechanicals and for storage.
‘The people’s building ...’
Right now, the board is considering what groups should be allowed to use the meeting rooms in the new facility. Falken says that “this is the people’s building” and he favors a liberal policy. But others on the board want to assure that the new facility doesn’t compete with meeting rooms available in the private sector. They’ll work out policy details over the next few months.
It wasn’t a harmonious council that started the project, says Councilor Kubal, “but the cooperation from the very beginning between the city’s representatives on the board and the county’s representatives was very, very agreeable.”
“Eventually it all fell into line,” Kubal says.
“Now we’ve got to continue working together to make sure the building is funded. You know, when you put up a building, sometimes you don’t always take into consideration that … there’s going to be continuing, ad-infinitum costs for keeping the thing running.”
That’s the current task of the JPB, he says.
Mayor Tim Reed, who took Bartley’s spot on Joint Powers, says the board “is operating now like it was planned all along – this week we were arguing expenses and capital improvements.
“We saw the benefit of rolling everything into one for a future of cooperation. Once we understood our roles, everything went very well. The county has been a great partner.”
Different than commission
Alan Gregg agrees. “JPB is a lot different situation than serving on council or commission. Here, we’re making non-political decisions, and that’s a big difference. We’re four people with different points of view – I remember the Battle of the Basement – but we’re making it work.”
Gregg appreciates the fact that the Joint Powers Board most often functions as a management committee, and that things are done quickly, as they are in private enterprise. In commission work, the slowness of the political process can be difficult for someone with a do-it-now mentality, he says.
Making sure that the board can move through its monthly agendas quickly are Weldon and Ellwein. The two professionals review every item in advance of meetings, and they know in detail what’s coming and offer additional information and suggestions when requested by board members.
“The JPB is serving its purpose well,” Ellwein says, “and it’s truly a city-county effort” as she and Weldon handle administrative items on a daily basis.
She and Weldon are working especially well, she says, adding that as they confer to divide building chores, “it helps to be across the hall from one another.”
“We’re learning to get along,” she says.
Kubal, who chaired this week’s meeting, sums up the cooperative success of Joint Powers: “You couldn’t have gotten the job done without a Joint Powers Board. I don’t know of any other way to get around that. … I think the JPB did a good job under, at times, some pretty tough circumstances.”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.