Interview #18: Hot Springs, SD City Administrator Nolan Schroeder (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM and right here:

Nolan Schroeder is demographically a bit different from other city managers. We talked about college, ethics, and council meeting start times–among other things.

Q: I reviewed a Hot Springs city council meeting last month. How accurately did I capture the aura of that meeting?

A: I would say the accuracy was spot-on.

Q: Yeah, it was!

A: It brought a smile to my face to say the least.

Q: Can you describe what the city council meeting room looks like?

A: We used to meet in this kind of hallway environment. It was about a year ago we switched over to a theater. It seats 400 and thankfully we have not reached capacity yet.

Q: Have you ever had a drama teacher walk in and be like, “we’ve got a rehearsal for ‘The Music Man’ in ten minutes! Everybody out!”

A: We just consider those “communications from the public.”

Q: I’m assuming you became city administrator of Hot Springs after working a couple of desk jobs…you took a year off of college to backpack through Europe…you worked retail for a bit. Then five or six years later you got this job, right?

A: [Laughs] I finished grad school in 2014 and started literally weeks after I finished school.

Q: What?! This was your first job out of college?

A: I’m 26 years old. This is my first job out of school.

Q: Oh, my god.

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Hot Springs, SD City Administrator Nolan Schroeder

Q: What have you done as city administrator?

A: We–don’t laugh when I tell these accomplishments–but we completed some audits. We were behind on those. We passed a new personnel policy. New safety policy. Our sales tax revenue has gone up since I’ve been here. I can’t say if that’s because of the work we’ve done–

Q: I’m not a journalist, so I can say it’s because of the work you’ve done.

A: [Laughs]

Q: One thing I heard from another city manager is that when the public had a problem with the city and were criticizing staff at council meetings for not doing anything about it, he wished the city council would defend the staff.

A: We were able to pass a new code of ethics that states if you have direct criticism of an employee, you don’t just lash out or nod your head along in agreement if someone is lambasting a city employee.

Q: Is there anything the council members can do or have done that makes your life difficult?

A: Yes. They can not read their packets! We prepare council packets for them. I’ll do notes on each agenda item and give–at the very most–a four line summary of what the item is.

Q: You’re kind of a professor here. You have a lesson plan. You assign the reading….So can you tell when some people have done the reading, and some people are BS-ing their way through?

A: Yes! Part of my job is to read people. You can certainly tell who is prepared for the game and who is hoping somebody else answers for them.

Q: If you could change one thing about the Hot Springs city council meetings, what would it be?

A: The start time. It’s in our ordinance that we start at 7 p.m. People that work a full eight hours and have to go to the meeting…there’s some fatigue that sets in.

#53: Hot Springs, SD 9/19/16

If you thought that South Dakota city council meetings were polite, sleepy little powwows, you’re in for a Mount Rushmore-sized reality check.

Maybe it’s because Mercury is in retrograde, or perhaps because Mayor Cindy Donnell was taking the night off, but city administrator Nolan Schroeder was on the receiving end of some Hot Springs hot rage all night.

A burly man in a t-shirt bulldozed his way to the front of the stage where the aldermen–all but two of whom were technically alderwomen–sat vulnerable.

“Craig Romey,” he announced his presence. “When I was on the council–” Ahhh, a former alderman looking to share the wisdom of his years. How fortunate! Yes, my good man, you have something to say about drug testing of lifeguards?

“You guys aren’t doing it. Nobody is being drug tested are they?” he spoke haltingly, as if his CPU was buffering the words in his head. “I would classify it as life saving…lifeguard. And they’re not being drug tested. I’d like to know why…It’s the law.”

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“Did you miss me? Also, you’re breaking the law.”

The youthful city administrator drew in a breath. “That’s actually…not factual. [The law] mostly applies to first responders, EMT, firefighters, police.”

“You don’t think a lifeguard is lifesaving?” ex-Alderman Romey demanded.

“That’s not my call. We do follow the law.” Cool and collected until this point, Schroeder showed a hint of disdain for his inquisitor. “YOUR interpretation may be different than what’s required for us to do.”

But Romey admirably–and belligerently–insisted that HE was right. “I was going by what Sheriff Evans told myself–”

“We gave you our best answer, SIR,” snapped the city administrator abruptly.

The aldermen awkwardly averted their eyes. Romey took his seat. The unlucky job of seguing fell to Alderman Timothy Tescher. But there was one small problem.

“We have a small problem. We gather up brush all year long and we don’t have a chipper of our own. And we can’t burn it.” The other aldermen looked on blankly. “The way the air flows through that canyon, people down at the hospital get upset because their air exchangers are sucking our smoke into their hospital.”

He sighed. “We’re just about down to where we have to chip it.”

But a $16,000 wood-chipping extravaganza didn’t sit well with the tall glass of water in a short-sleeved shirt who stood to protest.

“I just can’t believe [the VA home] wouldn’t be interested in the pile if alls they gotta do is pay for the chipping,” he grumbled.

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The council meeting is right before the rehearsal of “King Lear.”

Alderman Tescher shook his head. “They can’t use them.”

“We CAN burn it, Tim,” insisted the man, escalating the situation like a brush fire in South Dakota. “It’s FACTUAL. We CAN burn it. That’s $16,000 you’re playing with!”

“It’s out of consideration to the neighbors we do not burn it,” Schroeder jumped in to remind the man, who apparently did not hear the part about hospitalized people inhaling smoke. “It’s a three-day process–”

“I KNOW how long it is, NOLAN,” he barked. “Take ’em out to the airport. Put ’em down in the pit. Then you could burn them. It wouldn’t bother anyone.”

The city administrator paused, wondering how to safely respond to someone who really, REALLY wants to set things on fire.

“It’s an interesting idea,” he said, completely uninterested.