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Watertown Candidates Seek Independent Investigation of Mayor’s Unauthorized Use of City Car

It’s not just Washington, D.C., that needs a special prosecutor. Watertown mayoral candidate Sarah Caron says Watertown needs to appoint an independent investigator to figure out how her incumbent opponent, Mayor Steve Thorson, got a city car without any policy authorizing such mayoral use of city property:

Sarah Caron
Sarah Caron

“I am requesting an independent investigation,” she told the Public Opinion this morning. “The council can’t be unbiased; it is filled with his family and friends.”

The mayor’s son, Brad Thorson, represents Ward C on the council.

“The city must be able to trust its mayor to be responsible with all city resources,” Caron said. “It’s not appropriate to have that body do the investigating. It needs to be done by a unbiased third party.”

Mike Davis, who is also running for mayor, said the mayor did the right thing by giving up the car when questions arose.

“But somebody at City Hall should have known there was no policy for the mayor to have a city-owned car and stopped it before it happened,” Davis said..

Mayor Thorson says his use of a Dodge Charger decommissioned from the city police was “an honest mistake.” Apparently he honestly didn’t think the city’s annual $250 in-town mileage reimbursement was enough, so he honestly thought he could add a benefit to his compensation package on his own initiative:

Mayor Steve Thorson
Mayor Steve Thorson

This was an honest mistake. This was something that during the budget time, what we do is we hand down cars, and we hand down trucks, and we hand down lawn mowers so there isn’t that big expense to all the department heads and all the different departments. And when… Lee McPeek, our chief of police, was getting his four new cars, I said, because I was getting $250 a year for my expenses on the vehicle, and I said, What’s the chances of using one of your cars, and Lee says Well, he didn’t have a problem, but in hindsight, I should’ve looked at policy, I should’ve looked and seen if it was o.k. with the city council [Mayor Steve Thorson, transcribed from audio, “Watertown Mayor Takes Blame in Police Car Incident,” Hub City Radio, 2017.05.15].

Mayor Thorson has parked the city’s car until the city council decides whether to authorize a car for the mayor in the 2018 budget. Of course, by that time, it may be Mayor Caron considering procuring that used Dodge Charger for her trips around Watertown.


  1. Rorschach 2017-05-15

    Thorson’s response makes me wonder whether he is using a city lawn mower too.

  2. Rorschach 2017-05-15

    And whether he or his son is driving a city truck.

  3. Dana P 2017-05-15

    “I’ll do this until maybe someone notices. Oops, I got caught. Honest mistake folks.”

    Boy, there sure is a theme here in this state, isn’t there? Do the backward engineering to attempt to show how an “honest” mistake happened. (gag)

    I guess when you don’t have an ethical compass in the first place, you are blind to the obvious ethical decision that are in front of you as a leader. Using a city car for personal business? Should have been a no-brainer. SHOULD have been.

  4. mike from iowa 2017-05-15

    I know I would ask the C of Police about city policy. Yup, that’s the first place you go.

    Just fry him!

  5. Chip 2017-05-15

    On one hand it’s important to stay vigilant, but on the other this is the type of stuff that gives liberals a black eye. If I were her I’d be spending more time figuring out how to bring jobs to the city and less time worrying about whether the mayor is buzzing around in some old hand me down.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-05-15

    Chip, I don’t know who in the Watertown race is liberal or conservative, if anyone. Do you have some insight and documentable evidence on political leanings in this nonpartisan race? And do those political leanings matter in terms of proper use of city property?

  7. DR 2017-05-15

    I used to work for Steve and one of his sons is married to my sister so I have been watching this race closely. While he has done many things for the city, this is a pretty serious deal and I agree it shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

    My question is, why did it take until May 1st to say anything. I believe he has been driving said car for a while. Someone had to know.

  8. DR 2017-05-15

    Cory, Steve is a moderate and she is touting herself as a conservative.

  9. Jenny 2017-05-15

    SD state motto = You’re just a good ol boy, never meanin’ no harm.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-05-15

    DR—thanks for that perspective. Caron is more conservative than Thorson? Then clearly I need to change my position and say the city car is no big deal. ;-)

    Seriously, use of city property, especially an asset as significant as an automobile, matters. If the city council sets compensation, no city official can unilaterally claim additional compensation. There could also be income tax implications for the mayor: use of a car is a thing of value, and if the mayor conducted any personal business with that car, wouldn’t he have to pay income tax on that thing of value?

    Hard to say why it takes time for things like this to come out. But that’s why we have elections, to encourage people to ask questions that may go unasked in the normal course of business.

  11. Chip 2017-05-15

    True Cory, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. I just get sick of this petty little crap. We have real issues that need to be dealt with. Hand me down cop cars aren’t one of them. Granted what he did probably didn’t follow the code of the law. Make a note of it and move on. If this is the type of stuff she is going to base her campaign on, then she shouldn’t even bother.

  12. Chip 2017-05-15

    IMVHO 😁

  13. Troy 2017-05-15

    I’m with you Cory. I have no idea who is the conservative or liberal and I don’t see how it is a partisan issue.

    The first question I’d ask is “What is the actual policy?” Is it permitted in some circumstances or prohibited?

    If the answer is yes, what are those circumstances and how is it approved? This will then give some degree of understanding of the infraction (if there is one).

    If there is no policy (permitting or prohibiting) and such usage is on an ad hoc basis, my reaction is now there is reason to get a policy and move on.

    In either case, since we lived in a world where the rule book is getting longer and more complex, sometimes “I didn’t know” and “I didn’t think” are legitimate excuses and grounds for not throwing the rule book at them.

  14. Roger Cornelius 2017-05-15

    Petty little crap often leads to serious big crap.
    When politicians get away with small things they try to get away with big things.

  15. Dave 2017-05-15

    this came out in september of 16…. written by HR as directed by mayor

    City Vehicle Use Policy

    Purpose – The purpose of this policy is to ensure the safety and well being of City employees, minimize the liability to the City, facilitate efficient and effective use of City resources and establish a standard set of requirements for all City of Watertown employees who drive City owned vehicles and equipment.
    1. Use restricted to City business. Employees who are authorized to utilize City vehicles shall do so only to conduct City business. Personal use of a City vehicle, regardless of jurisdiction, is prohibited.
    2. Passenger restrictions. Generally, only City of Watertown employees shall be passengers in City vehicles. Family members, minor children, non employees and animals (except as required for City business) are prohibited from riding in city vehicles. In addition, hitchhikers are also prohibited in City vehicles at any time. All passengers are expected to adhere to State Law and wear seat belts at all times while in the vehicle.
    3. Licenses and Insurance Requirements. An employee shall not operate a City of Watertown vehicle or equipment unless he/she possesses a valid South Dakota Driver’s License and/or other required licenses (i.e. Commercial Driver’s License when required). The City Human Resources office will maintain copies of employee driver’s licenses for all employees who conduct City business in which job duties include driving.
    4. Traffic Regulations. All employees shall be knowledgeable of and obey all Federal, State and local traffic laws while operating City of Watertown equipment or vehicles.
    5. Seat Belts. Pursuant to South Dakota law and City of Watertown Personnel Policy 12.02D, drivers and passengers of all City of Watertown equipment and vehicles equipped with seat belts must use those seat belts while the vehicle is being driven. If a vehicle seat belt is defective or non-equipped, please report this to your supervisor immediately and this vehicle shall not be operated until seat belts are fully functional.
    6. Insurance Requirements. Employees driving City of Watertown vehicles for City business are covered under the City’s insurance plan. Employees who drive personal vehicles for City business purposes shall carry at least the minimum limits of coverage required by the State of South Dakota. The City Human Resources office will maintain copies of said coverage from employees and maintain this information on file.
    7. Accidents. An employee must report all accidents immediately to his/her supervisor and Watertown Police Department. The supervisor shall inform Human Resources immediately to initiate the Claims process and necessary paperwork. If an injury has resulted, Human Resources must be informed immediately to begin the processes which allow for medical treatment.
    8. Vehicle Inspections. It is the responsibility of the employee to regularly inspect the City
    vehicle/equipment they use for defects, damage and missing equipment. All deficiencies shall be
    reported to the supervisor and said vehicle may not be driven with a defect that compromises the
    safe operation of the vehicle (including but not limited to brakes, lights, windshields, mirrors, seat
    belts, exhaust).
    9. Emergency Equipment. Employees shall utilize vehicle hazard lights or emergency lights when
    appropriate. If other emergency equipment is required (fire extinguishers, first aid kits) the
    employee shall ensure that such equipment is in working order and easily accessible.
    10. Housekeeping. All City equipment and vehicles are expected to be free of trash and other debris.
    Tools, equipment and machinery should be stored properly in the trunk or rear of the vehicle. Any
    employee who transports hazardous materials must follow the guidelines for such transportation
    as recommended on the SDS sheets.
    11. Take-home Vehicles. Take-home vehicles shall be utilized only for traveling to and from work.
    Personal use of take-home vehicles, without prior authorization, is prohibited.
    12. Alcohol, Illegal Drugs, Substance Use. The use of alcohol, illegal drugs, or any drugs or substances
    which may affect the employee’s ability to drive safely are prohibited.
    13. Tobacco use prohibited. The use of tobacco, smoking cigarettes is prohibited in City equipment
    or vehicles.
    14. Firearms prohibited. Firearms are not allowed in a City vehicle or equipment at any time except
    as permitted by City of Watertown Personnel Policy Section 20.02.
    15. Cell Phone Usage. Employees must not text while driving and must adhere to safe cellphone
    restrictions outlined in Section 21.02D of the City of Watertown Personnel Policy Manual.
    I have read and understand the above statements. I agree to abide by them.
    ________________________________ _____________ _______________________________
    Signature of Employee Date Employee Name (please print)
    Witness Date
    September 2016

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-05-15

    That’s interesting, Dave. Did the mayor sign one of those forms?

    The fact that the city provides the mayor with a $250 in-town mileage reimbursement indicates the city did not envision giving him use of a city car for in-town travel. We appear to be dealing with absence of clear policy, not explicit prohibition, but the problem here seems to be that the mayor made policy for himself, without city council approval. As Roger suggests in his response to Chip, that’s not exactly petty little crap. That’s basic acknowledgment of the boundaries of one’s legal authority.

  17. Sam2 2017-05-15

    Steve Was on the city council when the 250 was set as Mayor’s travel budget. He was fulley aware of the policy. Sarah is a environmental friendly person. She is a liberal that follows the rules

  18. Chip 2017-05-15

    I think it definitely warrants noting, and maybe a semi-firm “Let’s clear this first next time”. If it leads to other infractions then deal with it accordingly at that time. But a special investigation over this? Nah.

  19. Troy 2017-05-15

    When I was with the State, someone did an analysis of all of the personal owned cars used for travel instead of using the State Motor Pool (using personal cars cost the state more money) so they did a survey on the reason: The rules were too broad, complex, and people were afraid to violate a rule.

    Let’s look at Watertown’s rules:

    #1: Is a patrol policeman stopping at home for lunch and picked up to take a child’s forgotten homework to school “personal use” before going back on patrol? Or do they have to go to the station, get personal car, drive to house to pick up homework, drive to school, back to station and ultimately skip lunch?

    #2: City employee is out and about on city business and gets call child is sick, do they have to go back to office to get personal car and do as above? Or can they just pick up the kid, get them home, and get back to work? Remember, they might pick up the kid, take them home, take off the rest of the day, and not return the city vehicle until the spouse gets home. Is that an abuse?

    #11: Employee has a take-home vehicle and can violate #1 and #2 with prior permission. Hmm, why is that? Probably because it is known parents have to drop kids at school on way to work. Can they get “prior permission” for the entire school year or do they have to ask every day before they go home from work? Seems kinda discriminatory doesn’t it that only those who have “take home vehicles” get this privilege?

    Here is my point: Public Employees who drive “company” cars for work shouldn’t be treated any worse than private employees who drive company cars for work. Our public employees deserve the same respect, unless of course we want a lower caliber of public employee.

    Now I go back to State survey and response.

    They loosened the rules of family in the car. They realized State Employees who got back to Pierre after the Motor Pool closed and had their personal car locked up at the Motor Pool might have kid duty the next morning. There were stories of single parents leaving kids at home, going to Motor Pool early to be able to take kids to school without “breaking the rules.”

    And, sometimes if you were going near the grandparents in your travel, you could take your kids to spend time with grandma and grandpa (needed to get permission).

    And, if instead of staying at a hotel in Sioux Falls, you could drive at night to say Brookings and stay with your parents (miles driven were cheaper than hotel).

    And, maybe most important, if you made a minor mistake because of confusion on the rules, you got warnings instead of immediate dismissal.

    The result is state employees became willing to take the state cars and the taxpayer saved money. Maybe its happened but I don’t remember hearing of a single accident in the 30 years since the rules were changed. That is alot of miles driven and alot of money saved.

    And, if you went to dinner at a place that served alcohol (Texas Roadhouse, etc.), you could park your car there (couldn’t drink of course) whereas before what people were doing was parking and then walking to where they ate. Remember it is almost only fast food which doesn’t serve alcohol which gets p[retty old fast when on the road. (FYI: State employees get a fixed amount for dinner. If they eat cheaper, they make a few bucks. If they eat at Texas Roadhouse, they lose money.)

  20. Rorschach 2017-05-16

    Fine and dandy, Troy. But your dissertation on state motor pool rules has nothing to do with the Watertown mayor using a city car in addition to his $250 in-town travel budget. Since it was a city car was he filling it at the city pump too? And how about that handed down lawn mower he’s talking about. Is that in his garage?

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-05-16

    I look forward to hearing the accounting of just how many miles of in-town driving the mayor logs doing city business. If those miles exceed $250 worth of gasoline and auto maintenance, then sure, the city should consider a larger reimbursement (although almost everything a mayor would drive to within Watertown city limits is within 2 miles of City Hall, and that’s biking distance).

    But suppose the mayor adds up his mileage log, multiplies by X cents per mile, and comes up with $350—is it o.k. for him to walk down to the Finance Office and just grab a hundred bucks from the petty cash box without getting the o.k. from the City Council?

  22. Troy 2017-05-16


    My only point is that while he may not have followed all the rules to the “T” as Cory points out is to just step back and consider the following:

    1) The “I didn’t know” and “I didn’t think” is a plausible explanation (may not be an excuse) and there was no intent to harm the taxpayer or abuse his position.

    2) Is it possible he did a quick and dirty calculation of “I run around town alot more than my predecessor and using this car would be alot cheaper than asking for a change in reimbursement (remember it could be just not thinking about the reality he should ask)? So, he just got a car and did his job.

    3) If #2 is true and it makes fiscal sense, was the taxpayer really harmed?

    Yes, it is easy to stand on the fact he should have asked and gone through procedure but is that what we really want from every public employee (regardless of place on the totem pole) or do we sometimes want them to just act and do what makes sense?

    The private sector rewards people who make inovative decisions and tolerate reasonable bonehead decisions because they recognize net-net over time the business and customers come up out ahead with that kind of initiative.

    In government there is not only no reward for being innovative but the punishment of making a mistake is onerous (often lose your job). So, in the end, public employees become the bureaucrat nobody likes and the public wonders why.

    That is my point. I’m willing to accept some decisions that don’t work out because I know net-net overtime we get better government.

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