Two men are running for Rapid City Mayor: two-term incumbent Sam Kooiker and his former police chief Steve Allender.
Allender “retired” from the Rapid City Police Department last year at age 52. He says he has always used air quotes around “retired.” Allender felt 29 years on the force was plenty, but he saw “retirement” as an opportunity to clear his head, enjoy summer with his family, and think about how best to re-engage with the community.
“Retirement” has also been an opportunity to pay attention to swingsets. Allender says his neighbors have a broken swingset, and it drives him nuts. Seeing himself as a builder and fixer, Allender says his attention naturally gravitates toward things that are broken and people who need help. Once things are running smoothly, he says he tends to lose interest and seek out the next broken system that needs fixing. (Neighbors, open that gate, and Steve will be right over with his tool belt!)
Allender has chosen to return to public life with this run for mayor because “I can do better” than the current mayor, who has “underachieved for the past two terms.” When I asked what is broken about the city’s swingset, Allender first mentioned the potential kept locked up by inherent flaws in Rapid City government. He said two-year terms for the mayor and councillors limits long-term planning. Allender says the Council gets nothing concrete done during the six months before each municipal election. Mayor Kooiker vetoed longer terms in 2012; Allender says he’s open to any plan that would lengthen terms.
Allender says the city lacks a coherent communication strategy. Allender says the current city newsletter is a mishmash of matters great and trivial. The city’s website is a click-heavy mess with no unifying communications strategy or integration of social media. Allender says city officials don’t communicate well because they aren’t thinking like entrepreneurs and telling stories as if they were selling.
Allender says he would overhaul city communications by getting employees to adopt the mindset that they are indeed selling something (information, confidence in city government, what have you). He would define the city public information officer’s mission that way he defined that job for the similar position he created in the police department. Seeing a decline in journalism since 2005, Allender says he sought a PD PIO with a journalism background who could do the work mainstream reporters are not in covering city affairs.
One hard story for any Rapid City PIO or mayor to tell is the story of race relations in our gateway to the Paha Sapa. Allender says Rapid City clearly has a racial divide. Previous efforts to address that divide (Allender mentions “forced” cultural awareness training for city employees and hasty public forums) have not succeeded. Allender says he gets the impression that any time the city tries to bring groups together to talk race, the folks an the White side are always different, while the Native side are always the same ten or twenty activists. Allender contends that those activists do not full represent the 8,000-some Native Americans in Rapid City. Allender suggests that “reconciliation” is actually “off the table” in Rapid City because the Native side says the injustice runs so deep in our occupation of the Black Hills that nothing short of a rectification of all Fort Laramie Treaty issues can set things right, and the city, says Allender, can’t do anything about treaty issues.
Bridging this cultural gap will require actions more profound than anything the current administration does in Rapid City. Allender says gestures like hanging Native American art in the mayor’s office and wearing Native American clothing “tokenizes” Native Americans. Allender says the city’s initial response to the American Horse School/hockey/beer incident in January leapt too far ahead of the facts and unduly gave credence to charges of racism not supported by any facts beyond social media posts available at the time. Tokenizing and raising false hopes only makes it harder to achieve real equality.
Allender offers no magic race relations solution. He does advocate bringing interested citizens together in a room without any politicians to work independently on a list of actions to help race relations.
Allender says city politics are holding back economic development. He says Rapid City has earned a reputation for a negative political culture where in-house spats prevent the people’s work from getting done. Allender says Rapid City can’t count on the beauty of the Hills alone to bring good jobs; councillors and the mayor have to start working together and really selling the city to entrepreneurs.
Allender sees a lot of bolts loose on the Rapid City swingset. He must now convince voters to open the mayor’s office door and bring in his toolbelt.
I’m reviewing my file on Kooiker and working on an interview of the incumbent. Stay tuned!