Editor's Note: Clarifying remarks were added to this original story.
The Dickinson City Commission discussed how best to effectuate the governor’s recently ordered mask mandate, as well as having a brief discussion on a change in government structure Tuesday evening at City Hall.
During the meeting, Deputy City Administrator Linda Carlson and Public Works Director Gary Zuroff requested for more direction as to whether City Hall will close its doors to the public and how that mandate will apply to city employees, including those working in solo-areas or outdoor spaces. Currently, City Hall officials are asking citizens to wear masks inside the building and will be having its employees do the same.
Scott Decker argued that the mandate did not apply to outdoor spaces or to employees working alone in an office space.
“I would say that you highly recommend masks, but at this point that we’re not going to get confrontational. As long as your employees are wearing their protective (gear). I know there’s plexi-glass there… You’ve got payments sliding underneath that plexi-glass — mask or no mask, they’re contacted by somebody that could have whatever transmissible virus be it COVID, flu or whatever with passing payment,” Decker said. “It’s highly recommended to educate people but at the same time, we don’t want to pit people against each other.”
Dickinson Police Chief Dustin Dassinger addressed the mask mandate issue by noting that the department would refrain from issuing punitive citations, only as a last resort for the most egregious of offenses. Rather, he said his department would focus citations to written warnings.
“We’re certainly going to weigh heavy on the educational aspect of things and I consider a written warning or verbal warning to be part of that educational task,” Dassinger said. “We are not going to be obviously aggressively hunting down people violating the mask mandate. Obviously, we don’t have enough manpower to do that. We’re going to deal with it by a complaint-basis and weighing the totality of the circumstances, (we will) make a reasonable decision as far as what type of enforcement action to take.”
Currently, DPD is enforcing the mandate with its employees with the exception of officers working solo in patrol cars on 12-hour shifts, or those working separately in an office inside the City of Dickinson’s Public Safety Center.
“We have not seen a lot of issues related to mask wearing at this point in time… People have already made up their mind if they’re going to wear their mask and hopefully they are respectful for the people wearing the mask appropriately, like they should be,” Dassinger said. “Unfortunately the mask has become political; it’s very unfortunate because our community really needs to band together and do what we can to make sure our kids are in school, that our kids are in extracurricular activities and we’re all going to have to work together to make this (happen).”
Educating the public on the new mandate and safety measures is also another priority for DPD, and by having city leaders leading by example at its public meetings, Dassinger hopes that citizens will adhere to the current requirements.
“I just encourage the public to really bond together. We can’t be divided by political beliefs over a mask-related issue. We have to work together or else our hurdles will continue to get bigger,” he added.
Decker stated that it’s vital to keep local businesses operating during these unprecedented times, a stance he has maintained throughout the pandemic.
“I see states surrounding us, they’re shutting (businesses) all the way down and they’re going into lockdown. I, personally, don’t see how the small stores — the ma and pas — are ever going to recover,” Decker remarked.
Mayor suggests council form of government
During the commission comment portion at the conclusion of the agenda, Decker expressed his frustration regarding the delays in decision making within the current structure of government. As a mayor, Decker receives daily calls and emails from the public regarding hot topic issues such as the mask mandate — many of which are demanding immediate answers.
“I get a call everyday, saying why are you not mandating masks. One, I wouldn’t do it and two, I don’t have the power to do it. We are a commission-formed government, now that is frustrating because there are times that there have to be decisions made that we cannot make because all of us aren’t in a room together. And for expediency, it is frustrating for those of us who interact everyday with each other when decisions have to be made,” Decker noted.
With the commission form of government, decisions have to be funneled through the commission. However, there are administrative decisions on occasion that could be handled more swiftly under a council form of government, Decker said.
Commissioner John Odermann noted that he understood Decker’s frustrations, but suggested at the meeting that it’s crucial to have a commission government.
“I think the commission format works effectively; I think it puts all of us on an even playing field and I think the structure we have right now works effectively if everybody does their job and works inside that structure… I think we have a city administrator for a reason and we need to empower and let those city staff members do their job,” Odermann said.
“I’m fine with the commission form of government as long as … (we) establish once again portfolios where a commissioner would be in charge of certain services that would be their portfolio,” Decker said.
The city commission operated under a portfolio system prior to the late 1990s, when an ordinance was passed ridding the commissioners of that requirement. But portfolios are important, Decker said, explaining, they would enable for commissioners to be assigned to certain departments within their services terms such as a public safety commissioner, public works commissioner, admin and finance commissioner and a development/engineering commissioner.
Each commissioner would then acquire information from that particular department and relay those details back to the commission. Decker said he would also like to see those portfolios rotated amongst the commission every two years, so each commissioner would obtain a diverse knowledge of departments and become “more well-rounded because they see all the operations in the city.”
Decker noted that certain decisions could be expedited such as snow emergencies, extreme weather events and other executive orders that require a prompt response.
“Every form of government has its goods and the bads, and there are some that would see that there would be overreach by an individual… if you went to a council form of government with a strong mayor,” he said, adding, “But ultimately you answer to whoever is in that position; you answer to the people. And if they feel like you’re out of line or doing something wrong, you answer to the people. It does afford somebody in a leadership position a little bit more control.”
The new city administrator, Brian Winningham, will take office the first week in December.
Odermann stated that having a city administrator is vital in implementing decisions and it’s important to empower that person. In previous years, there have been city administrators who haven’t taken direction from commissioners, Odermann said, explaining that moving forward, it will be important for the new city administrator to take direction from the entire commission.
“I think we’ve hired a phenomenal new city administrator, Brian Winningham, is going to be great. And we need to just give him an opportunity to get his feet under him, get the lay of the land, meet and get to know the city staff and commissioners (while also) have a conversation with each of us about what we think the city needs. Then kind of distill that down and come up with a plan of attack with the City Commission on how we’re going to advance the city in the future.
“There’s five fingers on a hand and the city administrator can be the glove and we need to be hand and glove, working really closely with the city administrator, making sure that he knows what the expectations are but then also support him in moving forward how he plans to execute the priorities of the commission. And I think he can do that by having a positive working relationship with the city staff. Our city staff is first class,” Odermann said.
Under Winningham, Decker believes his experience will allow for a thorough analysis of each department with an eye toward identifying strong and weak points in the government. Decker added that Winningham would then be able to make recommendations to the commission on how the city can improve.
“I’m really excited that Mr. Winningham is coming onboard with us. I think he’s going to bring a unique perspective to the city for his vast amount of experience,” he said.