Things got tense Tuesday in the Pierre City Commission meeting as two owners of The Sunset paddlewheeler told the city leaders in plain words they were upset with what they said was a long history of bad faith dealing in finding a dock for the boat.
“I have been working with the city of Pierre for over two years,” Caleb Gilkerson told the Commission and staff workers, but directing his comments rather directly to Mayor Steve Harding. “It’s very hard to work with someone that isn’t going to be honest with you from the git-go. And that’s what we have been running up against.”
Gilkerson later said he was tired of “the chicanery we have dealt with from the top of our city’s leaders.”
His outspoken displeasure gave the Commission’s new meeting room an unusual charge of negative vibes for a five-member panel which rarely — less than once a year — has a divided vote, much less much disagreement.
Hardly ever do members of the public attend regular meetings, much less stand up to criticize Commissioners, including the mayor, sharply, in person.
It was the first piece of business on the agenda Tuesday evening and put a somber feel to the entire meeting even after Gilkerson and co-owner Steve Rounds had left.
Harding was quieter than Gilkerson, but was clearly riled by his comments.
“First, let me say I’m offended by your personal attacks, which are untrue,” Harding told Gilkerson and Rounds. “Obviously there’s a misunderstanding here.”
What was needed was a meeting to air the differences and work out agreement, Harding said.
Gilkerson told Harding more than once he was simply “stalling.”
Harding made clear he was holding back.
“We don’t have time (now) to argue with you. You got your comments. I’ve got waay more that I can say. But we don’t have time here. I want to meet with you and discuss the details. . . . We can point fingers all night long.”
The dispute was about Gilkerson’s river boat gamble that he says is costing him a bundle because Pierre’s city leaders won’t support his new business.
Gilkerson brought the boat to Pierre in the spring of 2017 from Cincinnati. For the past two summers, as captain, he’s used a dock on the Fort Pierre side of the Missouri River to take on paying passengers for rides up and down the Big Muddy.
He’s tried for nearly two years to get permission to also dock the boat on the Pierre side at the causeway, said Gilkerson, a co-owner of the boat with Rounds, who formerly owned a marina near Pierre and who also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.
Pierre has a lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the causeway.
Gilkerson is seeking a third-party relationship through the city to build a dock for The Sunset on the causeway. He also wants to build a permanent dock for his boat on the Fort Pierre side at the Bad River’s mouth.
Gilkerson said last year city leaders were working with him, saying he could use the causeway.
But after two kayakers were swept through the culvert of the causeway and nearly killed this past June in high waters related to releases from nearby Oahe Dam, Harding said the city’s thinking changed. The city then demanded that Gilkerson and Rounds get a risk assessment done to satisfy the city’s insurance carrier.
In August, the City Commission voted to support the idea of Gilkerson building a dock at the causeway.
But the vote also spelled out more financial obligations for Gilkerson, who said he had been hoping for more city and business community support for The Sunset.
In angry tones, his voice at times raised, Gilkerson on Tuesday told the Commission — directing his comments mostly to Mayor Steve Harding — that it appears city leaders are stalling while saying they support The Sunset.
Gilkerson said Harding had told other civic leaders that the the application had been sent in to the Army Corps, when it hadn’t been sent.
Commissioner Vona Johnson told Gilkerson and Rounds that she and other commissioners were all in favor of the paddleboat, but that the city hadn’t gotten what it needs from The Sunset’s owners.
“I’m hearing a lot of different stories that really don’t match up,” she told the two men.
She said Gilkerson’s information and reports to the Commission “didn’t meet the things that we asked for, and we have asked for it time and time again, and we have been getting the same thing.”
Commissioner Jamie Huizenga said, “I’ve been on the boat, I like the boat.” But he said he’s not yet ready to sign on to give it a spot on the causeway until more informations and assurances come from The Sunset’s owners, Huizenga said. “I still have some unanswered questions.”
Gilkerson said several times Tuesday that city leaders would never give him specifics “in writing” of what was lacking in his reports to them.
Gilkerson had a wider criticism, saying he knew other business owners who told him city leaders had not supported their own efforts. He asked the Commission to “form an independent committee to gather our allegations and other people’s allegations from people in Pierre and investigate those charges.”
No one on the Commission responded directly to that comment from Gilkerson.
Rounds told the Commission he and Gilkerson wanted the Commission to submit their application for a dock on the causeway to the Army Corps to speed up the process, while he and Gilkerson worked out details with city leaders.
“That doesn’t mean you are going to approve the dock being put in,” Rounds said. “We are simply asking you to send the information to the Army Corps.”
But Assistant City Attorney Bob Riter said the city was responsible for the causeway and needed to be assured that any plan from Gilkerson sent to the Corps of Engineers was approved by city leaders.
Mayor Harding said city leaders would meet with Gilkerson and Rounds within days to discuss their differences.
Riter said he could have information on what needed to be in the application to the Army Corps of Engineers
That didn’t mollify Gilkerson.
“This is why I’m here, asking you to put your vote to pass this information on,” Gilkerson said. “This is just stalling, Mayor Harding. You have been stalling since we first met. And if you continue stalling, you won’t have this boat around. This is a time-sensitive project. . . I’m hoping you can come up with something that does not take months and months and years. No matter what we do, it’s never enough.”