Lalley: Growth drives need for big ideas about local government

Joe Kirby led the move to home rule for Sioux Falls three decades ago. As the metro changes, how must government adapt? What do you think?

SF city hall.jpg
Sioux Falls City Hall.
Mitchell Republic
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It’s difficult 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 the push for Sioux Falls to adopt home rule in the early 1990s which led to revamping of city government. Our current strong-mayor system with a part-time city council was the product of that change beginning in 1994.

One can quibble at the edges about the efficacy of our current local government but in the big picture, most would agree that the change was a good one. The former 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 difficult to predict exactly how that would work today, but it’s not hard to envision a rather chaotic environment, a kind of federation of individual fiefdoms.


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The Kirby Dog Park in downtown Sioux Falls.
City of Sioux Falls

The Kirbys are a legacy family in Sioux Falls, present from the earliest days of statehood. They built a financial empire in the bonding and surety business before selling the company in 1992.

Today you see the family name attached to features at the Washington Pavilion, Avera McKennan Hospital, the Levitt at the Falls and the downtown dog park, among other philanthropic work.

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

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Joe Kirby walking his dog Holmes in downtown Sioux Falls.
Joe Kirby / Contributed

I ran into Joe recently at an event on the roof of the Railyard Flats, one of those rehab projects that converted old industrial buildings into upscale lofts and retail on the East Bank downtown.

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

It wasn’t completely by coincidence.

Joe recently fired up a blog where he posts commentary on the state of things and changes he thinks would be beneficial. You can read his insights at

I told him that I’ve been reading and enjoying his posts.


A recent piece hit on the notion of how Minnehaha and Lincoln counties would be better served by adopting a home rule charter, similar to what the city did three decades ago. The advantage, Joe says, is that you could eliminate an array of elected jobs that are essentially administrative in nature — such as the auditor, treasurer and register of deeds — and hire capable staff.

The particulars of that plan notwithstanding, that led us to a discussion of the idea of metro government for Sioux Falls.

It’s an intriguing idea as the city continues to grow. One ring to rule them all, to borrow a phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien.

Consider all the different levels of government and authority within 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 300,000 plus people who live here as we’d like it to be.

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

There are four sheriffs in the metro.

Twenty county commissioners.

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


It’s also a huge undertaking.

In the coming months, I plan to explore some of the possibilities of how that might work in Sioux Falls.

If you’ve got some thoughts on the idea, drop me a note.

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

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for the Forum News Service in Sioux Falls. Reach him at
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