After a long and at times contentious public hearing Tuesday evening, Pierre City Commission members voted 4-0 that business owner Caleb Gilkerson is not a qualified city resident and therefore can’t make the ballot in his bid to run against Mayor Steve Harding.
Last week, Gilkerson turned in his petitions to get on the June 2 primary election ballot as the sole challenger to Harding, who is running for re-election after his first three-year term.
Gilkerson has said he's running for mayor largely because of what he says has been unfair treatment by Harding and other city officials of Gilkerson in his attempt to obtain a docking location for his paddlewheeler, The Sunset.
Gilkerson has said Harding and others also are unfair to other business ventures and that new leadership is needed. In more than one commission meeting the past two years, Gilkerson has voiced angry views.
A long meeting in December 2018 that was packed with supporters of Gilkerson, for example, ended without the decision he hoped for. His attacks on the mayor’s integrity that evening clearly angered Harding who seemed to work hard to not respond in kind.
Shortly after that meeting, Gilkerson posted on social media his plans for 2020:
“The incompetence and dishonesty was on full display for all to see. A SAD SAD Day for our wonderful community. I’m compelled to run for Mayor to clean house.”
Questions from city officials about Gilkerson's home address led to a nearly 90-minute hearing Tuesday during the Commission's regular weekly meeting.
On his petitions handed in last week, Gilkerson gave his residence as 511 W. Dakota Ave., in Pierre, where his business, Steamboats, Inc., is located. The address mostly is his family’s diving business, the paddlewheeler he and partners bought in 2017 and processing game meat from pheasants and deer as well as “cattle and pigs,” he said Tuesday.
He and his son live in an apartment in the business, Gilkerson told the Commission on Tuesday.
“I live at 511 West Dakota. It’s the only place that I have a deed, a title to. My name is not associated with any other physical property.”
Attorney Richard Tieszen told the commission that the property is zoned only for business and not for the “mixed” purpose of “business, slash, residential.” The city hired Tieszen, who represents cities and school districts, as a consultant in determining Gilkerson's residency.
Tieszen said he's an honest broker in the matter. "Mr. Gilkerson is a friend of mine. And so is Mr. Harding," Tieszen said during the hearing.
His analysis, based on state and city law, is that 511 West Dakota is zoned only for business and cannot be described as a residence, Tieszen told the commission. Which means he does not qualify for the ballot in a city election.
Commissioner Vona Johnson asked Gilkerson how many days had he spent at that address in the last month.
Gilkerson said he would not answer the question because it was irrelevant to whether it was his legal residence.
He travels a lot with his work and he spends time with his girlfriend in her new home in Fort Pierre and keeps some of this things at his parents’ home, Gilkerson said. He’s lived at several other places in Pierre in recent years, but in recent months, returned to using 511 West Dakota as his residence, he said.
But City Planner Sharon Pruess said there is no evidence in city records that the living quarters in Steamboats, Inc., ever were given a permit as a residence.
Tieszen said the issue of determining what someone’s residence is can be complicated and that a key test case decided by the state Supreme Court ended with a split vote of 3-2, the justices themselves not agreeing on the issue.
But all things considered, it appears 511 W. Dakota does not qualify as a residence for Gilkerson, both for zoning reasons and for Gilkerson’s actual living situations, despite what he claims as his residence, Tieszen said.
But the attorney also told the commission they are the judge of whether Gilkerson is qualified as a resident to run for city office.
Commissioner Jim Mehlhaff, who was running the meeting because Harding recused himself from the hearing, said he did not want the city to set a questionable precedent.
“This is something new,” Mehlhaff said. “Mr. Tieszen has been here over 40 years and he’s never seen it. I’ve never seen it. I think the laws are fairly clear. However, the home rule charter does give this body the power to determine what makes someone a resident and this will be somewhat precedent-setting. I have some concerns . . . about having the conditions for running for office so loose.”
Gilkerson interrupted Mehlhaff, disagreeing with an example he made.
Mehlhaff cut Gilkerson off, as it was a discussion period among the commissioners.
“I think we’re done talking,” Mehlhaff said. “We can argue back and forth all day. But I think that evidence that’s been presented that establishes you have a business in town, but you do not live here as a resident.”
“What evidence do you have?” Gilkerson retorted, then sat back: “This is why I’m running for mayor . . .this very thing.”