FREEMAN — Dennis Nelsen is doing his job like nobody else before him.
That’s because there was nobody else before him.
Nelsen took over the reins Monday as Freeman’s first city administrator. The Hutchinson County town of 1,300 residents becomes the latest South Dakota community to implement the position.
And how is the new job?
“The first day went just great,” Nelsen said, joking and speaking with an easy manner Tuesday afternoon at his desk in the council chambers.
Nelsen said he brings an instant familiarity to the job and region that has helped him hit the ground running.
“All of my life, I have lived in southeast South Dakota. It helps me understand the people, where they come from and their values,” he said. “I understand agribusiness, agriculture and the Main Street dynamics. I understand the makeup of the area.”
Nelsen brings a variety of experiences to a job that will likely require that broad range of skills.
The Volin native graduated from Gayville-Volin High School in 1973. He then graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in political science and criminal justice. He worked eight years for the Vermillion Police Department, until 1986.
“Working for the Vermillion police gave me a sampling of municipal government,” he said. “I not only learned about the police department, I also got to know other departments.”
Nelsen earned his masters in public administration degree from USD in 1985. The core emphasis of his master’s degree was on city administration.
He has worked for the past 22 years as a medical staff administrator at Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife, Connie, lived in Vermillion during that time. They are in the process of moving to Freeman.
While health care and city government occupy two different spheres, Nelsen believes his former and current career fields share many skills.
“At Mercy Medical Center, I did personal and background checks, and I worked with recruiting, policies and by-laws. I was a board delegate to the medical staff. I was working with administration and management,” he said.
“You were making tough calls while working with 300 physicians. And then you had up to 200 allied health professionals, such as physician assistants and other health care workers. More and more, it was budgeting, policy work and personnel.”
Nelsen enjoyed his work but never fully shook the desire for public service.
“I liked my job, but the last few years I was looking again at something like city administrator or city manager,” he said. “I had an itch that it was something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to retire and then wonder what it would have been like.”
Then came the opening for Freeman city administrator.
Nelsen pulled away his personal safety net and plunged into the applicant pool after 22 years at the same job. He also realized the opportunities — and challenges — of being the first person to hold the position.
“People asked, ‘Why start at something that’s totally new?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’” he said. “Sure, I could go to another part of the country, to a larger community, and start in this field. But I like the challenges of something different. It keeps me fired up and going. I become a better-rounded person. So I decided to get out of my comfort zone.”
The Freeman City Council liked what they saw when they interviewed Nelsen.
Councilman Lonnie Tjaden, who was mayor last year when the council decided to hire a city administrator, ran down a list of Nelsen’s attributes.
“His people skills, his negotiation skills, his pleasant demeanor, his general experience in his field,” Tjaden said in clockwork fashion.
Nelsen was hired at a salary of $50,000 plus benefits, Tjaden said. As part of the City Hall restructuring, the city has advertised for a new city finance officer and a city administrative assistant, he said. Evelyn Duerksen, the current finance officer, plans to retire later this year.
The mayor and council will retain the ultimate power in Freeman city government, but the city administrator will take care of the day-to-day business, Tjaden said.
“With the administrator, there will be more hands-on responding to citizens’ needs,” Tjaden said, adding that Nelsen rather than a councilman will directly handle everyday concerns.
While he will be held responsible for the daily operation of city government, Nelsen said he absolutely wants input from the elected officials.
“I still want guidance from the City Council. I want to be involved with them as a team. I am new at this, and we’ll attack it together,” he said. “I believe in participatory management. I want to be well researched and will have a lot of questions as we get started.”
Nelsen sees himself as helping blaze new trails for the people of Freeman. Because everything is new, there are no constraints and more room to experiment, he said.
“I am proud of being Freeman’s first city administrator,” he said. “If someone else had done this before me, it’s human nature to do what they did before. But it’s never been done this way, so let’s try this (new approach to a situation). I like to think we will learn and grow together.”
Nelsen sees tremendous opportunities in Freeman for economic development, which accounts for one-fourth of his work. He pointed to Freeman’s strong businesses, health care, schools, infrastructure and surrounding agriculture.
Small towns face many of the same challenges as larger communities, which is why they are hiring trained professionals to run City Hall, Nelsen said.
“For years, Yankton and Vermillion were the only cities in South Dakota that had city managers. Now, you are seeing more city administrators for smaller towns,” he said. “Whether you have a budget of $3 million or $20 million, you have the same mechanics. You deal with the agencies that test the quality of the water. You deal with economic development and the same increasing government regulations, zoning ordinances, budgets and paperwork.”
Despite such obstacles, Nelsen said he looks forward to each day on the job.
“It’s appealing and challenging. I am finding it exciting,” he said. “The timing is right for me to take this step. It’s what I want to do.”
Tjaden also looks forward to the newness of it all.
“We will learn the process and figure what is going on,” he said. “We will see how this works out, but I really do believe that we hired the right person.”