David Lias

“Deliberate in many voices, but govern in one.”

I wish I knew the source of the quote above. I found it while riffling through some notes recently. I have a tendency to sometimes doodle things in a notebook or type noteworthy things in a message that I actually email to myself in an attempt to not lose the doodle in the scraps of paper that ultimately accumulate on my desk.

This could have come from a lot of different sources. The televised speech of a politician. One of several dozen commencement speeches I’ve covered over the years. A TED talk that piqued my interest while exploring various topics on YouTube.

Who knows?

I guess what’s most important is I liked this brief sentence well enough to save it so that I could perhaps refer to it at a later date.

Today is as good of a time as any.

If you’ve followed our coverage of the Vermillion City Council lately (including the story in today’s edition of the Plain Talk) you’ll be informed of a bit of drama in council chambers regarding an amendment to the city’s Bed, Board and Booze (BBB) tax.

All but one of the city’s aldermen decided, after deliberations that began last February, to alter the wording of the ordinance regarding that city tax on bed, board and booze. This tax generates somewhere around $350,000 a year in Vermillion, give or take a few thousand from year to year depending on how brisk the motel or bar business is in the community.

The city council, year after year, spreads that revenue to about 15 or so different entities in the community, ranging from the USD Shakespeare Festival and the SD All Star Football game to the National Music Museum and the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration.

The biggest chunk of BBB revenue goes to the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company (VCDC). There’s a good reason for that. Back in the mid-1980s, Vermillion citizens circulated petitions to allow themselves, not the city council, to decide if there should be a BBB tax in the community.

An ordinance had been drafted earlier, calling for a one percent sales tax on motels, eating establishments and bars to be established in Vermillion, according to the Dec. 19, 1984 Plain Talk. The city council, at an earlier meeting, voted against that ordinance.

Vermillion citizens, in early 1986, voted in favor of instituting the tax. They weren’t just voting for a new stream of revenue, however. They also endorsed, through their votes, a specific use for those funds.

The Plain Talk reports in that December 1984 issue, while talking about the ordinance’s failure at the hands of the city council earlier that year: “Monies generated was (sic) to have been used by the Vermillion Development Company for the purpose of economic development in the community.”

It’s difficult, therefore, to argue against Alderman Howard Willson’s idea, introduced last February, to make sure the BBB funds go where citizens intended them to go. His original proposal was to allocate 75 percent of BBB revenue to the VCDC each year.

The idea was discussed by both the city’s Policies and Procedures Committee and its Labor and Finance Committee. It’s safe to say that many voices deliberated over this and ultimately came to the conclusion that rather than lock in a percentage amount to the VCDC, the BBB ordinance should be amended to simply state that priority will be given to the VCDC when city budget time rolls around each year.

The Vermillion City Council deliberated as one in this instance, except for one alderman – Tom Sorensen.

He has every right to disagree with his fellow council members until you realize, if you are close follower of city issues, that Sorensen sort of makes a point out of being disagreeable while being bit erratic, too.

Last July, the Vermillion City Council had no choice but to rezone the land that was once home to the Cottage Villa trailer court. The owner of that piece of property had found a buyer for it. The problem was it had been improperly zoned in the past as a GB General Business District. In order for the sale to take place, the property had to be properly zoned to an R-3 Residential District.

The city also discovered, after a thorough review of city regulations, that mobile homes aren’t allowable uses for property zoned either as a GB General Business District or a R-3 Residential District.

The council did the right, although very painful thing. It rezoned the property.

Well, not all of the council. Sorensen voted no. Last July, he said he disagrees with the notion that rezoning the property to R-3 Residential is compatible simply because there is property zoned similarly directly north of the Cottage Villa.

“All the rest of it is surrounded by property that's zoned General Business so it seems compatible to leave it the way that it is,” he said. “It seems that we need to find someone who is really geared up to find businesses. What are we doing to keep business and attract business? If we take this off the business roster, will it ever become business surrounded by those other businesses?”

Compare that with what he told fellow council members earlier this month:

“… there’s a lot more to this community than business. We’re a whole community and we have needs.”

Sorensen talked about a pamphlet that was printed recently that talks about the 35.7 percent poverty level in the Vermillion community and the thousands of people who use the food pantry.

“Those aren’t businesses but they’re certainly issues in Vermillion that needs to be addressed,” he said, adding that he couldn’t vote for the revised ordinance.

There are things other than inconsistency going on when it comes to Sorensen. He was basically rude to Willson during the April 15 meeting, loudly asking him to answer a question that already clearly was known.

“Why are we doing this when it’s already evident that we’re already giving them (the VCDC) priority? Can you answer that, Mr. Willson, perhaps?” Sorensen asked.

I was at the February meeting when Willson introduced this proposal. So was Sorensen. Willson was crystal clear. It was evident that everyone at that meeting knew exactly what Willson hoped his fellow aldermen would consider.

The idea was thoroughly discussed in committees. The final draft of the amended ordinance was in every member of the city council’s hands by April 1, if not before, along with a memo from City Manager John Prescott fully explaining the measure’s history.

Is Sorensen choosing to not read the packet of materials he receives from city hall before each meeting?

As I mentioned earlier, it’s fine for members of a governing body to disagree. We all, individually, carry a host of opinions as we embark on any decision-making process. Eventually, a deliberative body, to be successful, has to reach a consensus.

It must deliberate in many voices, but govern in one. Hopefully, Sorensen will take this advice to heart. The citizens who live in his ward deserve to be better represented on the Vermillion City Council.

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