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Gibson: County needs someone with a 'global view'

Wadena County needs some form of a coordinator or human resources position, according to Mike Gibson, the county's temporary human resources consultant.

"We need to have someone with a global view," he told commissioners.

The county should have someone to serve between the board of commissioners and department heads, Gibson said. There are 15 county departments and the five board members each serve as liaisons to three departments. They get to know those three departments really well but do not necessarily know what's happening in the other 12 departments, he said.

A coordinator or human resources type position would not be attached to just one section of the county but to the whole operation, he said.

When Gibson accepted the position last year, he resolved to save the county at least what his position cost, he said. His one-year contract was for 1,000 hours at $60 an hour not to exceed $60,000. Gibson said prior to his coming the county spent close to $68,000 on attorneys fees. This year, the county spent $5,000 on attorney's fees, he said. Gibson is working on wage negotiations to meet the county's goal for a wage freeze. Gibson was told the county had to do a one step increase, he said, but this is not the case.

"I don't know if anybody would have discovered that," he said. "I knew that that didn't have to be done and that the county couldn't afford it."

A one step increase would have cost the county in excess of a quarter million dollars, Gibson said.

Other accomplishments he cited include arranging a budget meeting with all the department heads, informing department heads that they are not to contact attorneys or business agents about union contracts, dealing with a situation involving the board's improper inclusion of a six-month raise in an assessor's contract and beginning to work on the master plan to deal with the county's space needs.

In reference do the assessor contract error, Gibson said a position where someone is able to oversee these issues can help prevent mistakes. It doesn't eliminate all of them, but it helps, he said.

"I sleep nights from this standpoint: that I know I didn't cost the county any money," Gibson said. "As a matter of fact I saved you a lot of money. This isn't about me, this is about the position."

In addition to other responsibilities, Gibson was hired as the human resources consultant last year to research the county's need for such a position. Gibson's job was the subject of some controversy when it was created because people thought county department heads and commissioners should do the work Gibson was assigned to do.

Expectations that department heads should all be able to handle personnel issues is not realistic, according to Gibson. Department heads are hired for their expertise in a particular field not for their supervisory skills. Some people naturally have people managing skills, he said, but others should not be faulted if they don't. Good supervisors know when they need assistance, he said.

The county board's responsibility is to set the budget and policy, Gibson said.

In the past the Wadena County auditor has typically served as the "captain of the ship," for department heads and employees to go to, he said. Over the years, however, the responsibilities of counties have grown due to staff size, budget and responsibilities handed down by the state and federal governments.

Other counties determined that these responsibilities are more than what the auditor is intended to do, Gibson said. Of the 87 counties in Minnesota, 81 have a county administrator or coordinator or combination of a coordinator and human resources position.

"You're dealing with, really, a corporation here in Wadena County that has a budget of about $20 million," Gibson said.

The county has several union contracts that are not identical, Gibson said. There are Teamsters contracts for the general and essential units, a 49ers contract for the highway department and social services has the Merit System.

Gibson said these issues are difficult to talk about publicly due to privacy issues and legal ramifications, but he cited a couple of examples where he said contracts were misread, resulting in overpayments to employees.

Gibson anticipates that his current contract will run out in a little over a month.

"The final task is going to be up to you folks to decide where you go from here," he told commissioners.

When Gibson finished his report, Chairman Dave Schermerhorn asked if there were any more questions, and suggested that to satisfy questions the county should hold more meetings when Gibson has finished his contract.

Gibson would like to answer questions, he said. He is willing to go into commissioners' districts and answer constituents' questions.

Commissioner Rodney Bounds said he wants to feel comfortable with being for or against the position before he approaches any of his constituents. The buck will stop with the board, he said.

That's true, Gibson said, but many people made their minds up about the position before he even started the job last spring. Before the board makes a decision it may want to let citizens know what is going on so they can give feedback, he said.

Commissioner Bill Stearns said he didn't know whether the county needed a county administrator, a county coordinator, a human resource person or an economic developer as suggested by another entity when the county first contracted with Gibson. Wadena County does need a component of the human resource position, he said.

"One thing I have seen throughout your stint here is the human resource role you've played has been invaluable," Stearns told Gibson. "It's going to be needed in the future."

People can be sued at the drop of a hat for almost anything, Stearns said.

Former commissioner Orv Meyer said the number of grievances filed for personnel issues in 2008 speaks for itself.

Schermerhorn said the commissioners should have another meeting at the courthouse with Gibson then, if they feel comfortable, have him go to their constituency and answer questions.