Five candidates hoping to be elected Vermillion’s mayor on June 8 discussed a variety of issues during a mayoral forum held May 24 in the Vermillion High School’s Thomas H. Craig Center For Performing Arts.
Meeting together on the stage of the performing arts center were incumbent Kelsey Collier-Wise, Ryun Fischbach, Tammy Seney Baisden, Ryan S. Church and Aaron Kerkhove.
The candidates are seeking a one-year term as mayor, finishing the term of Mayor Jack Powell who died April 20, 2020.
The event, hosted by the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company, was moderated by Craig Thompson.
Collier-Wise has lived in Vermillion for over 30 years, is a graduate of Vermillion High School and the University of South Dakota School of Law.
“As my day job, I work as executive director of the United Way of Vermillion, raising funds for local non-profits as well as overseeing the Community Connection Center downtown which is home to the Vermillion Food Pantry, The Welcome Table, the Evan Project Diaper Bank and the Salvation Army Emergency Fund.”
Collier-Wise said she became interested in city government after participating in the Citizens Academy program.
“I was so impressed by the work of our city employees and fascinated by the interworkings of each department that keeps our city running,” she said. “If you never toured the wastewater treatment facilities, I recommend adding it to your Vermillion bucket list.”
Fischbach said he is seeking election as Vermillion’s next mayor to bring change to the city council.
“I work for Gregoire Excavating full time as a heavy equipment operator,” he said. “I think I’m pretty well known in the community for my skills for what I’ve done with my career and I bring a skillset of leadership as I’ve several leadership roles with the Vermillion Fire Department and my place of employment.”
Baisden was born and raised in Vermillion and said she’s been talking about running for mayor for several years.
“This year, I just decided I was going to do it,” she said.
Church said he is a recent transplant to Vermillion, moving to the community from Hawaii where he served in the military.
“After moving here, I came to love the people, love the community, love everything that this city seems to stand for,” he said. “You don’t find this tight-knitted style of community in most of the places I’ve lived in the U.S. and around the world.
“I really want to be a part of this community and help it grow,” Church said, “and achieve the greatness it’s destined to achieve. You can do that by helping me win the position of mayor.”
Kerkhove said he’s running for mayor because he’s wanted change for a long time.
“I said this three years ago and nothing has changed,” he said. “I do get the concept of what the perception of the community is from the outside and that kind of hinders certain things that come in.”
Kerkhove grew up in Vermillion.
“I’ve been working in the community for years and years, always volunteering, always trying to bring different things into the community,” he said, “different things that involve everybody.”
Kerkhove said there are things the community needs to do to benefit its kids.
“I feel that if we can concentrate on our core, of our heart and soul and stand up for that, it will be better for Vermillion,” he said.
The candidates were asked what makes them stand out from their fellow office seekers.
“I’d like to think my service not only through my employer, but also my volunteer service for the past 11 years through Vermillion Fire and EMS,” Fischbach said.
“Most people who know me know that I speak from the heart,” Baisden said. “What I say is what I mean; I don’t skirt around the issue. Sometimes I’m maybe a little too blunt in how I feel, so I’ve been working over the last few months to try to control that part and not instantly spit it out before I’ve actually thought about what I’m going to say.
“When I say something, I follow through with it and most people who know me know that,” she said. “I’d like to try to do that for Vermillion.”
“One of the biggest things that sets me apart from the other candidates up here is that I’m able to take a look at problems that the state may be facing and I’ll be able to have an outside perspective on things,” Church said. “Also, my experiences from living around the U.S. and around the world, dealing with multiple people, multiple cultures, multiple societies provides me with different outlooks on things and gives me more experience to handle certain situations that may arise here in town.”
Kerkhove said he stands out because of the passion he brings to everything in which he gets involved.
“I’ve always stood up for Vermillion; I’ve always put Vermillion first, no matter what,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re one party or the other, I don’t care. I’m always going to shake your hand. If we have a disagreement, I’m still going to shake your hand at the end of the day.
“I’m only here for Vermillion. I’m not a politician,” Kerkhove said. “I’m here for Vermillion because I’ve always done things and stood up for Vermillion. I’ve always been the one that speaks up loud. Some of you have probably seen me on Facebook standing up for the heart and soul of the businesses downtown with the streets.”
He noted that he wants to see beautification downtown, but in a way that benefits everyone.
“All of them are getting new sidewalks, but not all of the restaurants and bars are getting a bump out,” Kerkhove said, referring to the Streetscape Project that currently is being constructed in downtown Vermillion. “With the pandemic that we’ve had for these last couple months, I don’t think we should have done our beautification right away. We should have put that into our EMS, our law enforcement, our other stuff so it can help us better just in case we do have another situation.”
“I’ve worked hard over the last decade to really learn the ins and outs of municipal government,” Collier-Wise said, “and build relationships with city staff, fellow council members, and leaders in the community and around the state. I believe that I run meetings transparently and efficiently since I took over, which has been a real challenge during this last year, and ultimately I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who is a bigger cheerleader for our community.
“My goal has always been to make Vermillion better and I think I have a track record that proves that,” she said.
The candidates were asked what skill set would they bring to the position of mayor, for example what past job experiences or educational experiences would help them serve as mayor.
“I consider myself more street smart than book smart like some people,” Baisden said. “Sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit for things that I do, but I will have Vermillion’s best interests always, and I always have.”
She has managed a gas station for 16 years, she said.
“I’ve had a skill set of employees that were with me in 2005 when I started and I went to a different gas station for about a year and they followed me over there and then when I went back to Freedom, they all came back to Freedom; they followed me back,” Baisden said. “I deal with people on a daily basis, and, trust me, they’re not all nice. You have to take that phone call at 10 o’clock at night and go over there and talk to an unruly customer that’s upset for whatever reason and you have to try to call them down and then you have to try to calm your employee down.”
She said she attended college for a time, but got married, had a son and didn’t return to school.
“It’s one of my big regrets of my life, but if there’s anything I need to know about government or politics, my son fills me mostly on everything,” Baisden said.
“Currently I’m a logistics coordinator; I work over at Masaba,” Church said, “and I’m responsible for millions of dollars’ worth of equipment monthly, transportation, delivery, receiving, shipping, inspections, etc., so I’m no stranger to meeting hard-pressed deadlines. I’m no stranger to working under pressure.
“Another thing that I bring to the table is leadership,” he said, describing his role in a reconnaissance platoon that deployed several times in the Middle East. “I bring integrity. I believe integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching and there’s no gain of recognition or tribute. I think that’s very important to have.
Church said he also brings commitment and punctuality. “I don’t like being late; I don’t like when things are late and if you aren’t 15 minutes early, you’re late.”
Kerkhove said Jeff Radigan at Whimp’s is a mentor who taught him how to cut costs without sacrificing the quality in your product.
“I took that with a lot of heart, and going through with my grandfather, who is a Korean War veteran and volunteering in a VA hospital – you’ve got to help, no matter what. Even if they don’t ask, you’ve got to help, no matter what,” he said.
Kerkhove said he served on the original committee that brought Ribs, Rods and Rock ‘n Roll to Vermillion.
“It brought the largest sanctioned barbecue competition into Vermillion,” he said. “It brought a lot of eyes, a lot of tourism here and I’m very proud of that.”
He noted that he has been self-employed as an event coordinator and has received calls for assistance in that area from others.
“I’m really passionate about this and I also channel my learning from Scouts,” Kerkhove said. “I learned a lot from Boy Scouts and I’m proud of that and I’m never going to apologize for that.”
He also has experience as a youth coach.
Collier-Wise said she believes her experience in city government, her legal education, her organizational skills and her ability to find consensus among her fellow council members makes her an ideal candidate to continue as mayor.
“I’ve had a lot of experience leading different boards,” she said, “which requires many of the same skills that being mayor requires. Running a meeting, understanding Robert’s Rules of Order and how to make sure that every member of the board or organization is included.”
Collier-Wise’s experiences, she said, include being senior warden of her church, chair of Vermillion Next and the current president of the Vermillion Rotary Club.
“Any chance that I have to be able to lend my skills to something that I’m passionate about, I try to do,” she said. “Also, during my service these last nine years, I’ve learned so much from my constituents, city staff, my fellow council people and of course from Mayor Jack Powell who taught me so much about what it means to be mayor, what it means to run those city meetings, to build consensus, to make sure that everybody is on the same page so you aren’t creating division among the council and among the community.
“I was hoping that I’d have more time to learn from him,” Collier-Wise said, “but I hope that I’ve been able during the last year to live up to some of the things he taught me.”
“I have a lot of construction background and leadership there,” Fischbach said, “to give insight to the rest of the city council on projects that are moving through the city. I’ve also spent time as the current president of the Vermillion Rural Fire Association and I’m past president of the Vermillion/Clay County EMS Association.
“I’ve spent time leading crews on people’s worst days of their life and I’d like to have the chance to lead the community through some of the better times that we’ll have together,” he said.
The forum, which is approximately two hours long, may be viewed in its entirety on the VCDC’s Facebook page.