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Commissioners believe appointments would save county cash

In a Wadena Pioneer Journal poll, 69% of respondents were in favor of having the county auditor/treasurer and recorder positions as appointed, while 31% preferred elected.

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In a public hearing Monday, Dec. 7, Wadena County Commissioners heard residents' concerns about a possible change from elected to appointed for the positions of auditor/treasurer and recorder.

The only residents that appeared in public or on Zoom and telephone options included commissioners-elect Michael Weyer and Murlyn Kreklau. Both had several questions about the change and received responses from officials present.

County Coordinator Ryan Odden said he received no other written or phoned in responses from the public wishing to be heard. Despite no public comments aside from incoming commissioners, the group hashed out the topic for over an hour, each commissioner giving their thoughts without any vote on the topic.

It’s believed the topic will be voted on during the normal Tuesday, Dec. 15, meeting at the Wadena City Council chambers.

Questions

Weyer spoke first asking for history on why commissioners are pursuing this instead of continuing on with the elected positions. Odden responded giving an overview of some points that he said made the appointed positions more attractive.

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As elected, the requirements for these positions are that the person be a Wadena County resident for at least 30 days prior to filing, be eligible to vote in Minnesota, cannot have filed for another office in the county and be at least 21 years old when assuming office. That’s it.

While all of those requirements can also be a part of the appointed position, Odden listed a job description of other similar positions that are appointed. Those job descriptions allow the county to be far more specific on what is needed for qualifications, such as so many years of experience in accounting, a Bachelor's degree, certain certifications and the ability to show competency in the job. Odden expressed that currently a completely unqualified person could earn a popular vote and take the seat of auditor/treasurer without an idea on how to handle a $26 million budget.

The same is true for the recorder position.

“For county recorder, you need a good working knowledge of land legal descriptions, how land transfers take place … Everybody can learn things but it would be far more effective if we had somebody who had some qualifications when they are assuming that responsibility,” Odden said.

Odden was not speaking badly of current staff, rather pointing out that in the future, should the positions be open, they want to make sure the most qualified person takes their place.

RELATED: Questions on the possible appointment process for auditor-treasurer, recorder? Read on.
Commissioner Jim Hofer spoke up about the need for change as the times have changed. He recalled far back in history when most all department heads were elected.

“The reality is, times have changed,” Hofer said. “I’m old enough to remember when there was an elected superintendent. There were county elected dog catchers and coroners … ”

“Yes, it is taking a couple names off the ballot, but that puts more pressure on the five commissioners who are on the ballot,” Hofer said. “So the people still have a choice.”

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Weyer next asked about the job descriptions asking if they could be tweaked, which Odden explained that the board would work to create the job descriptions.

Weyer then asked about terms of the appointed positions. County Attorney Kyra Ladd answered that these would be, at minimum, four year terms. Appointed employees are evaluated annually by the board, while elected positions are evaluated every four years by voters through the election process. If someone were to be removed from the appointment, it would have to be done through a demonstration of misconduct or competency or their own choice to resign. Commissioners pointed out that in the past, when an elected official demonstrated misconduct, their hands were tied with any regards to removing the person.

Weyer’s questioning brought up the fact that an elected official is not eligible for paid vacation. An appointed person is treated as hired staff, eligible for benefits and subject to the pay scale.

When Kreklau spoke he shared that two people called him opposed to the appointment. But Kreklau saw this change as a better option to allow the county to remove an individual that is not competent.

Kreklau asked if this change would cost the county more. He saw the change might allow them to combine departments, possibly slimming costs.

“What I would like to see it accomplish is have competent people, at the same time, trying to save some dollars in the long run,” Kreklau said.

Hofer said he saw this change as a way to save cost over time. He pointed out Cass County as one that was able to cut costs after several years of shifting.

When asked if she would care to comment, Auditor/Treasurer Heather Olson replied "no." Recorder Soledad Henriksen was not present at the public hearing.

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Commissioner standings

Commissioner Chuck Horsager also responded that he saw it as a savings and would allow the county to adjust job descriptions and create possible mergers.

“I think it’s time for a renewed look at how to save money in this county and be really efficient and effective,” Horsager said. As he is exiting his position on the board, he saw this as a job to pass on to the remaining board members.

Odden explained that the change to appointed would not affect the current office holders and they would not be considered appointed until the end of their terms in January 2023.

That point stuck with commissioner Jon Kangas who, among several concerns, pushed the point that because these changes don’t go into effect for two years, there was no rush to approve this change. Kangas went on to say that this topic has been discussed long enough that it could have been put to voters in two different election cycles.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to explain it to the public and let the public decide,” he said.

Kangas next pointed out that they could explore the option of creating one position out of two, combining auditor, treasurer and assessor. Kangas’ next point was that the commissioners don’t have a signed contract with the two elected staff members, they don’t have job descriptions and they don’t have a pay study of these positions.

“We could do this a year or 18 months from now with the same results,” Kangas said. He felt the decision was being rushed so that the current board could make a decision before the two new board members are sworn in.

Commissioner Sheldon Monson commented that this was not a rush, rather it is something that has been talked about for approximately six years, from what he recalled. Monson was expecting more public input but said in six years he has only had one phone call with concerns of the change.

Commissioner Bill Stearns spoke to the fact that times have changed and while it may have made sense to elect these officials 150 years ago, he saw that in today’s world they needed to appoint or hire based on qualifications.

“Do I think this is going to save money, yes,” Stearns said. “And I think it’s going to give us more responsible and better leadership in our offices, and I think that’s what the public deserves.”

Hofer said that he could live with either way, appointed or elected, but he felt that it was time to make the change to appointed.

Kangas said that the switch to appointment sounds like a life sentence to him. He felt that it could be very difficult to remove someone from office without finding “a crime or something.”

“To me voting on this is setting this up as a lifetime appointment,” Kangas said.

Monson again brought up the case where the board had no recourse for an elected official. He added that many highly qualified people won’t take an elected job because the thought of running for reelection every four years was not favorable. Having an appointed position, he said, would bring in a larger pool of qualified individuals. To that comment, Kangas said the large pool of candidates won’t have a shot unless the appointed person exits their job.

Without actually voting, it appeared the change had support from four of five commissioners, which is the super-majority needed to pass it. Kangas implied that he was not interested in the change at this time since it wouldn't take effect for another two years.

Horsager put out a call that community members reach out to county commissioners if they wish to be heard.

Commissioners plan to put the decision to vote at their next meeting, Tuesday, Dec. 15. Meetings start at 9 a.m. and are viewable by Zoom. Visit the Wadena County Agenda Center online to find a link to the call. Space at the Wadena City Council chambers is very limited as county staff typically are present with little room for required social distancing.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a statement from Commissioner Jon Kangas. Kangas suggested the combination of auditor/treasurer and assessor, not recorder. The Pioneer Journal regrets the error.

He's a writer, editor, photographer, truth seeker and promoter of the Wadena area.
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