- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Theresa Stehly was on her living room floor. On her hands and knees.

Framed pictures of music students, loved ones and a crucifix hung on the walls around her. She cried as she prayed for guidance to lead.

Hours earlier, the Sioux Falls city councilor had yelled over the sound of a gavel at Carnegie Town Hall before refusing to participate in a closed-door meeting she presumed to be about her.

As other first-year councilors have moderated their approaches to governing, Stehly has stayed true to her activist origins, alienating her from city government peers and leaving her with a short list of legislative accomplishments.

“I’d be willing to go to jail for what I believe in,” Stehly told the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/2r7LD1k ) at her central Sioux Falls home, surrounded by an expansive garden with hardy perennials such as roses, iris, peonies and phlox.

Even before the 59-year-old gardener and music teacher got elected, she kept a close eye on City Hall. As a citizen activist, she led a pair of successful petition drives that left their mark on Sioux Falls - one pushing for snow gates and the other against an indoor pool at Drake Springs.

But she was all about volunteerism and community long before that. A devout Roman Catholic, she’s done mission work for her church and once considered joining a convent and becoming a nun. But Stehly says she opted against it because she wanted “to provide ministry to Protestants and atheists too.”

During a month-long mission in Jamaica at the age of 29, she said she became aware of abundant resources in the United States that she thought could be better used to help those in need here.

As a city councilor, she’s brought those lessons with her. Though her spirituality drives everything she does - including the decisions she makes at City Hall - she rarely invokes religion when acting in an official capacity.

“God speaks through my actions,” said the Mobridge native. “This city council thing, I wear that loosely. It doesn’t define my life. It’s a venue I’m using right now to help.”

And if that means ruffling feathers, that’s what she plans to do.

“In some ways it’s good and in some ways it’s very frustrating,” said Councilor Rex Rolfing, the man who gaveled down Stehly in September. “Sometimes we just don’t like the way she goes about it.”

Stehly said from the time she got elected, she had colleagues and more seasoned players in Sioux Falls government telling her to slow down, take a softer approach and play nice. But as the summer of 2016 played out, Stehly stoked ire by bringing her activist approach to hot-button issues that commanded headlines for months.

When it became clear the City Council couldn’t stop Mayor Mike Huether from borrowing $25 million to pay for a new administration building, she helped a group of citizens circulate petitions in hopes of putting it to a public vote. When that effort failed, she unsuccessfully attempted to establish a citizens advisory vote.

She also made waves for City Hall when she spoke out against a planned Terrace Park improvement project and advocated on behalf of a neighborhood group, which eventually compelled the city’s historical preservation board to halt the project.

More recently, when the city rebuffed her request that it send letters to every resident who might be affected by a newly-formed task force on annexation, Stehly printed her own notices and spent more than a dozen hours knocking on doors on the city’s outer edges to inform homeowners of possible changes.

Media attention and tepid news releases, she reasoned, simply weren’t enough.

“People don’t always know that these things are happening and they can’t do anything about it if we’re not keeping them in the loop,” Stehly said.

That level of community engagement is fairly unique for a politician not currently running for office. All council members take calls from constituents and work late into the evenings on city business on occasion, but all-day door knocking is a step beyond the normal.

“For a part-time city councilor, taxpayers are getting a lot of mileage out of her $18,000 a year salary,” said Greg Jamison, a state legislator and former city councilor.

Stehly’s blunt approach to public outreach and natural suspicion of city bureaucracy can be frustrating to her fellow council members. She is aligned closely with and amplifies the roles of blogger Scott Ehrisman and gadfly “Cameraman” Bruce Danielson, two of City Hall’s most vocal and persistent critics, going so far as to list Ehrisman’s blog as a reliable information source on her annexation flyers.

If you ask those who have known Stehly as both an activist and an elected official, they say they’re not surprised she’s able to generate attention from the public around issues regular citizens might not know they have a stake in.

Sioux Falls resident Dorene Weinstein’s relationship with Stehly started years ago when the two began lobbying City Hall to update its boulevard ordinance. After years of dialogue with city councilors about allowing flowers and gardening in the parking strips between streets and sidewalks, the rules were changed in 2016 just before Stehly was sworn in.

“She doesn’t let disappointment block her beliefs,” Wienstein recalled of how Stehly embraced the hurdles they faced when tackling the boulevard issue. “She’s really pretty inspiring. I’m not really a political person at all and I’ve watched her take on some of that stuff. She’s brought that to the City Council.”

Councilor Theresa Stehly was gaveled down during an informational meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, after saying council leadership and city attorney have been trying to silence her.

The tumultuous start to Stehly’s first term at Carnegie Town Hall came to a head the night of the gaveling incident, when the Council held a closed-door executive session to talk about expected conduct of city officials. And it galvanized her.

“Before every council meeting I’m on my knees (praying) and that gavel thing, that whole darkness in September brought me to a place spiritually that I never would have purposely sought out,” she said. “When I’m praying, an idea will come to me and I’ll act on it, and it bears fruit.”

But that hasn’t resulted in many wins in the traditional sense for Stehly. Though some amendments she’s offered on various bills have earned council support, she’s authored only a few proposed ordinances that were carried to the full council. And none of those passed. She’s also been the lone ‘no’ vote on many others that ended up in the rule books.

Her rigid stance and unwillingness to compromise is a big part of that.

“She’s got it figured out and everybody else is wrong,” Jamison said with a sarcastic nod to her inflexibility. “I get conviction, but if you want to get things done, sometimes you have to do it a little differently.”

Jamison said Stehly is following in the footsteps of Kermit Staggers, the fiscally conservative three-term city councilor who earned the nickname “Dr. No.” While respected, Staggers’ reluctance to compromise didn’t fare well for him when his ideas were up for debate.

“He wouldn’t build any support from the other councilors,” Jamison said. “Theresa struggles with the same approach.”

Stehly has also struggled with maintaining the support she had when first elected. Northwest District councilor Greg Neitzert, seen as a close ally of Stehly’s in the first months of their term, spoke out against her conduct in September after she accused City Hall of trying to keep her from speaking to the media and to citizen groups.

“It was a shameful performance on her part,” Neitzert said then. “It’s interesting that she talks about bullying and intimidation when she is the only one libeling people and calling them names.”

For a time following that confrontation, the two weren’t speaking or taking each other’s calls.

Neitzert said that wasn’t a productive period in his first year on the council. And if it happened again, he wouldn’t have used such strong language and may have opted to avoid opining on a fellow city councilor’s actions at all. The primary lesson he said he’s learned and benefited from is to be cordial and non-accusatory.

“Scorched earth and burning bridges is completely counter-productive,” Neitzert said. “There’s no point in burning bridges.”(backslash)

Stehly, though, said she regrets nothing from her first term. Even if she doesn’t have any feathers in her cap when it comes to new policies or projects, she said she’s proud of many of the resistance efforts she’s led against proposals coming from City Hall. She was among a majority of councilors to stop a city-wide outdoor public smoking ban from taking effect, as well as new garbage hauler rules that would have required trash companies to buy bonds.

And even efforts like proposing a public advisory vote on the administration building and forcing the parks board to record and broadcast its meetings, though not successful, are seen by Stehly as worthy causes she’d take up again.

Councilor Pat Starr said though Stehly’s style is questionable and can be the source of frustration for other councilors, city staff and the mayor, it’s made the city better by forcing City Hall to be more transparent when working with the Council.

“I think that’s made the process better,” he said. “They know they better be ready and have their ducks in a row.”

Whether it’s the two dozen music students she teaches at her home each week, the citizens she tries to get to meetings or the colleagues she encourages to see things her way, Stehly said her calling to do good isn’t going away - no matter who doesn’t like it or what it costs her.

“My colleagues didn’t bring me to the table,” she says. “The voters did.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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