‘The greatest honor that I could ever have’

Published 7:01 am Saturday, November 7, 2020

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Mayor Tom Stiehm reflects on time in office


Earlier this year, Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm announced that he would not seek re-election. Now in his fifth term, Stiehm decided it was time to move on and allow someone else the opportunity to take the helm of the city.

“It’s the greatest honor that I could ever have,” he said. “Twenty-five thousand different people put me in for five terms. How can you not be proud of that?”

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Stiehm first ran for mayor in 2006, shortly after retiring from the Austin Police Department, where he was a member of the Drug Task Force.

Mayor Tom Stiehm being sworn in for his first term in office, Jan. 2, 2007. Photo provided

“I wanted to get a job and work another 10 years,” he said. “I thought I would run for mayor and it would be a nice, clean campaign and get my name out there because I was probably going to get beat. I was as surprised as everybody else when I won.”

Stiehm said the first couple of years were a bit of a struggle. It was during that time that one of his most memorable moments as mayor took place.

“The Justice Center was the first big issue,” he said. “The city administration at the time wanted that to go south of the airport. I think if I had just sat down and been quiet, the jail would be south of the airport right now, and I don’t think that’s where it belonged. My goal was to keep the (Austin Police Department and Mower County Sheriff’s Office) together. Had it gone south of the airport, the sheriff’s office and police department would have split up. I worked on the Drug Task Force for 16 years. My partner was a deputy and his office was right next to me and we didn’t have to get up because we could yell to each other. When Terese (Amazi) was the sheriff, I could tell her I had a search warrant and ask if she could send three deputies and she would call them over. You lose all of that and that was the reason I didn’t want to split the departments.”

Another major issue at the time Stiehm took office was illegal immigration.

“I think people thought I was going to come in and really be tough on (illegal immigrants),” he said. “If that was what was the best for Austin, that’s what I would have done. But since then, immigration has stabilized and most are here legally. We’ve worked with the immigrants and I think the city’s made progress. That’s one of the things I’m happiest about.”

After winning in 2006, Stiehm was re-elected in 2008, 2010 and 2012. During this time the city charter was modified to extend the mayor’s term from two to four years, allowing him to seek a fifth term in 2016 as opposed to 2014.

“You’re constantly campaigning (in a two-year term) and campaigning is probably everyone’s least favorite part about politics because you have people saying you’re doing a crummy job and they could do better,” Stiehm said. “But others said four years was awful long, and four years is awfully long. But, I like the four-year terms. It gives you more consistency and makes it easier to look long term. It’s more stability for the city. If it’s good enough for the council, why isn’t it good enough for the mayor?”

Stiehm said that one part of being mayor he was not fond of was when the city conducted annexations.

“Probably the hardest thing was annexing that area across from the old power plant north of town,” he said. “Every time you do an annexation, someone gets affected, so I’m not big on annexations. But the city can’t be completely fair with everybody; you have to go with what’s best for the majority of people and sometimes people get left out on that. You still have to do it to move your city ahead.”

Even so, Stiehm said he is pleased about the position the city is in as he prepares to leave office.

“We’re operating good and we’re doing good,” he said. “It’s all about your department heads and your second level. I couldn’t be more impressed with the people we have.”

“I think we’ve seen a lot of changes in the city,” he continued. “If you poll the council, they’ll all tell you that housing is our number one issue. Housing stock in Austin is not up to par; we have too many rental houses and we have too many low-value houses that people don’t take care of. We’ve built a lot of apartments; that’s been our number one priority. I think the biggest criticism I’ve received from people is high taxes for the last four years. They have been a little bit high, but most of it goes into trying to improve our housing stock and trying to get people here and stores here. That’s what people want. I don’t think people elect you and say, ‘I want low taxes and nothing else.’ They put you in there to take care of the city to the best of your ability. I’m a moderate income person; I make no more than most people, and I think that’s important because I feel the pain just as much as everybody else when things go up. But we’ve done a good job. The Hormel Institute has had two expansions and the city has had a big part in that.”

Stiehm said he would miss the people the most after leaving office.

“I’ve grown (from being mayor) and I’m a different person than when I ran in 2006,” he said. “I’m a happier person, I’m more involved in the community and it’s changed my life. It makes you work harder. It’s been one of the greatest things to happen to me.”