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Salary review discussion mushrooms into county board argument

A discussion over employee salary reviews mushroomed into an argument over conflicts of interest and consultant Mike Gibson at the March 18 Wadena County Board meeting.

The controversy centered over the use of Gibson or an outside agency to do the salary reviews. Gibson had lowered his rate to the county to $50 per hour for the service. A check with the Hay Group for the same service showed a cost of $475 for a review estimated to last 1.25 hours, for an hourly rate of $380 per hour.

County commissioner Rodney Bounds suggested Auditor-Treasurer Char West survey surrounding counties to see who they use and what they charge for the service.

"I'm not in favor of spending $475 for an hour and a quarter," said commissioner Lane Waldahl. "So it would be my recommendation to use Mike at $50. We're trying to save money in the county. Let's save money."

"You can't say Mike's [rate] is $50 an hour," Bounds said.

"Before the end of the year, when no one else got a pay raise, [Gibson] sat in the audience and says, 'I will cut my rate to $50 an hour,'" Commissioner Dave Schermerhorn said.

"That's in a contract?" Bounds responded. "It was a statement made by him."

"Rodney, for some reason, I don't think you like Mike and anything Mike does," Waldahl said.

Bounds made a motion to research who surrounding counties use and go with one of those companies.

Commissioner Ralph Miller took the conversation in another direction -- conflict of interest.

"My position on the board has been questioned in regards to the public perception on some issues," he said. "I was asked not to participate in board strategizing for union negotiations."

Miller said it was because of a perceived conflict of interest due to his marriage to a county employee.

"The public perception exists in at least a great a capacity with Mr. Gibson conducting these pay equity studies as it did for me sitting on this board in regard to [board strategizing for union wages]. Public perception was an issue then," he said.

County Attorney Kyra Ladd said Miller's conflict wasn't just about public perception, it was about the law.

"It's not just knowing someone in the auditor's office," Ladd said. "You are married to somebody in the auditor's office. That's a legal relationship, separate and apart from your legal obligation that you have to function as an elected official here. Because of her participation in the unions, and her status within the unions, that is a real conflict."

The board eventually passed Bounds' motion to study what other counties do, with Waldahl casting a dissenting vote.