COVID-19, conflicts of interest are topics city council forum

ABERDEEN, S.D. (By Elisa Sand – Two local business owners and one incumbent provided their thoughts on changes they’d like to see if elected to the Aberdeen City Council.

Residents in the Southeast District in Aberdeen can chose from three candidates in this year’s June 2 primary. They shared their thoughts on a few topics during a candidate forum sponsored by the Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce. It was held using Zoom and also live-streamed on Facebook on the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce site.

  • Dennis “Mike” Olson, 69, currently sits on the board. He was first appointed in 2016 and was elected in 2017. He retired as code enforcement officer for Aberdeen in 2014 and is now semi-retired and runs his own code enforcement consulting business.
  • Tiffany Langer, 34, is owner of Pinned Workshop in Aberdeen and regional representative for South Dakota Retailers Association. She highlighted several ideas she has for the city, including offering building permit applications online and making use of a smartphone app in which residents can report street issues. She’d also like to bring a woman’s perspective back to the council.
  • Dave Welling, 52, is owner of One-Legged Pheasant in Aberdeen. He described himself as a constitutionalist and said city and government actions should be limited to the constitution and what it allows.

Both Langer and Welling are challenging Olson for the five-year seat and point to city regulations they’d like to change. Both came across the regulations when they were starting their new businesses.

Welling pointed to the landscaping ordinance as something that should be reviewed. While he’s not opposed to green space and beautifying Aberdeen, the regulation adds potentially thousands of dollars to the expense of opening a business.

Langer agreed the landscaping ordinance could be fixed and said the process to get a sign for her business was frustrating and took five to six months.

Olson, however, said the current ordinances and city council are business-friendly.

Conflicts of interest

Each candidate was asked if they agreed with the conflict-of-interest policy adopted by the city council in 2019. It was implemented after concerns were raised about Mayor Travis Schaunaman submitting a bid from his business to participate in the rebranding effort by the Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce and other city promotion groups.

Olson, who was involved in the council’s discussion and adoption of the policy, said he supported it.

“It’s something all businesses need to have these days,” he said. “Aberdeen addressed it very appropriately.”

Welling disagrees with the policy.

“Mainly because we are business owners first,” he said. “We’re doing things here besides that. As long as we’re not taking our powers and getting a leg up or influence to get a contract, I don’t see that as a problem. But if they are, they’re doing something that’s against the law.”

Langer said she followed discussion about the policy and was torn on the need for it.

“I understand what the city was doing with that policy, but there was also a policy in place,” she said, adding later that she doesn’t think it was necessary.

Langer said in the end, there should have been some trust placed on those people who were making the decision to award the contract.

Ultimately, Pinned was hired to help with the city’s rebranding effort.

Virus restrictions

Each candidate was also asked their opinion about the council’s recent decision to ease restrictions in place in response to COVID-19 concerns.

Langer and Welling said they both closed their businesses before those restrictions were put in place.

Langer said it was the responsible decision to loosen those restrictions and allow business owners to do what’s best. She would have involved health care officials earlier in the discussion process. She also said closing small businesses like Pinned and One-Legged Pheasant doesn’t do much when larger businesses remain open.

“We love our customers, we love our employees and we’re going to do everything we can to try and protect them,” she said.

Olson said the restrictions were put in place out of concern for the safety and health of citizens after hearing a “gloomy picture” from health officials. The restrictions were then eased because the community wanted that.

He said he’d like to have a clearer idea of how many COVID-19 tests are being administered daily to determine how many of those are positive and get a clearer picture of the virus in Aberdeen. There also needs to be a plan in place to lift restrictions, he said.

Welling said the health of the public is important, but the best source of information is the CDC and all the recommendations were in place.

“At first we really didn’t know what we were dealing with,” Welling said.

But, he said, COVID-19 has been around for a few months and more is known.

“If I were to do this on my own, we should have protected the elderly and those with a weak immune system,” he said. “Protect them, but not necessarily all of America.”

That didn’t happen, he said. But, he said, the city has done “pretty good.”