Top Political Stories of 2019: #8 – Sioux Falls City Councilwoman Theresa Stehly versus everyone
When I prepare my list of top political stories, I review the things that have bubbled to the top of the news on a month by month basis over the course of the previous year. And I can’t help but notice that Theresa Stehly has been a constant force of chaos all throughout 2019. Stehly is one of the At-Large Sioux Falls City Council positions – representing a constituency only equal to that of the Sioux Falls Mayor – the largest political subdivision in South Dakota. The only one bigger in the state is statewide office itself.
Literally, the year started with a Dakota Posts political cartoon, and quickly moved into a rant where Theresa claimed that it was an attack directed by the mayor’s office, and then it went downhill from there.
From paying for pothole schemes, to recruiting Lora Hubbel to run for School Board, to a recorded robocall blasted out the day before Easter attacking a person being hired to be an internal audit manager, that just takes us through the first quarter of 2019, and it did not slow down or stop after that.
In May the Sioux Falls Argus Leader came out with an editorial using words such as “Stehly’s scorched-earth approach” and “grandstanding” and Theresa Stehly guilty of “bullying behavior,” as they pulled no punches and directly accused her of harming the process of government itself.
That editorial seems to have coincided with a political campaign to act as the polar opposite of Stehly’s negativity.
A former State Representative who had ran solid campaigns in the past, Alex Jensen had taken a step back to start his family. But with all of these things happening Jensen started looking at the At Large City Council Race and wondering “what if…?” And granted an interview to the Argus Leader talking about a return to positivity on the City Council.
At this point in the year, Theresa Stehly was triggered into overdrive to try to repair her damaged reputation, but remained true to form.
About the same time as Jensen held a fundraiser, which Stehly is alleged to have called a majority of the sponsors, and ask them why they dislike her (I talked to more than one who confirmed a call, and I’m told she even called Jensen’s father), a Tornado struck Sioux Falls, and Stehly tried to use the opportunity to insert herself into the disaster while the city was trying to assess and manage the scope of the damage.
Greg Belfrage of KELO Radio went so far as to editorialize that as a result of all her grandstanding “Councilor Stehly jeopardizes lives when she spreads such blatant misinformation.”
After that public relations disaster for her, former State Representative Alex Jensen made his entrance into the 2020 City Council race official, and for a time it seemed that Stehly started exploring an exit strategy, floating balloons questioning whether she should get into the District 14 House primary.
But at the same time, Stehly began getting very aggressive in her self-promotion on facebook in the Sioux Falls Politics facebook group posting on herself constantly and endlessly, as if she was conducting a haphazard effort at on-line image rehabilitation.
And then an event directly linked to Theresa’s on-line crusades in the echo chamber of Facebook ended up circling back, and blowing up in her face once again as yet another public relations disaster.
A federal lawsuit had been filed against State Senator Stace Nelson, possibly triggering his unexpected and abrupt resignation from office. The substance of the lawsuit noted the decision of an appeals court that public officials cannot block people from Twitter, noting the President “cannot exclude some Americans from reading his posts.” According to the New York Times:
The First Amendment prohibits an official who uses a social media account for government purposes from excluding people from an “otherwise open online dialogue” because they say things that the official finds objectionable, Judge Parker wrote.
The decision in that court case gave rise to the lawsuit against Senator Stace Nelson for blocking a constituent who had a habit of pointing out where the Senator was wrong on Social Media, and the Senator didn’t like it.
The problem for Theresa Stehly was that when it came around to discussing other public officials who blocked constituents on social media, it was a virtual landslide of commentary on how they were blocked by Theresa from her “City Official” social media page – including other city councilors! That story immediately spilled over from social media to the mainstream media reporting on her history of blocking constituents.
In Stehly’s attempt to extinguish the story, she threw out there that there was a mysterious audio recording of Mayor Paul TenHaken threatening to block her on facebook, insanely claiming that “she’s getting it saved in several places just in case something should happen,” trying to intimate that she feared being ‘Epsteined’ over the matter.
That led to her mocking on the Belfrage radio program on KELO AM Radio the next day, as well as other parties releasing the actual radio clip she claimed to have been secreting away to us here at the SDWC. Which showed that the clip ended up being a nothing-burger, as well as leading some to note the similarity between Stehly’s claims of the audio clip and the disastrous selective release of an audio clip by the Mayor’s election opponent, Jolene Loetcher.
That brings us to the closing days of 2019, where two things have taken place.
First, Theresa Stehly has started on a crusade against electronic device use during City Council meetings, claiming that her colleagues are exhibiting corruption by using them.
The second? Alex Jensen, her announced competitor for the Sioux Falls City Council At-Large position, has noted that he’s set a new record for campaign contributions, raising more than $64,000, receiving contributions from more than 165 individuals and families, with nearly 67 percent of his donors contributing $250 or less.
We might be seeing an indication that there’s a groundswell of Sioux Falls residents who are ready for things to settle down on their city council. And they’re ready for the chaos to end.
Keep watching in 2020!