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Courthouse department heads, judges present space needs to Wadena board

Two district court judges, eight of nine department heads, and several other Wadena County and court staff packed the commissioners' room at the Courthouse during the Feb. 10 board meeting.

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Two district court judges, eight of nine department heads, and several other Wadena County and court staff packed the commissioners' room at the Courthouse during the Feb. 10 board meeting.

They were there to show support for County Attorney Kyra Ladd and Planning, Zoning and Parks Director Deana Malone as the two presented a proposal to slightly alter the plans for remodeling the courts area of the upper level of the courthouse, approved last year.

Ladd will soon hire a second assistant county attorney and a paralegal/administrative assistant to take on some of the large volume of legal work required of the County Attorney's Office. But there is no place left in the Courthouse, the way it is currently set up, to put two desks, two desk chairs, two file cabinets and other equipment that a lawyer and an assistant need so that they can do their work.

After weeks of discussion by the county's management team, a committee of the management team put together a plan to move a few offices around so as to provide more space for the County Attorney's Office. The plan would add about $50,000 to the current estimated cost of the court remodeling project ($454,000).

The plan calls for four basic changes:

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• Moving the commissioners' meetings out of the current board room and into the small courtroom. The small courtroom is currently used for court business about three days per month. It would be converted into a combination board room/second courtroom.

• Tearing down the wall between the current board room and the current Planning, Zoning and Parks office (which also houses the County Coordinator), and moving the County Attorney's Office up there from the lower level of the courthouse.

• Moving Planning, Zoning and Parks and the County Coordinator down to the lower level offices where the County Attorney's Office and Veterans' Service Office are now.

• Moving the Veterans' Service Office from the courthouse either to the Highway Department or to the Social Services building, both of which are accessible to wheelchairs and scooters.

The Management Team submitted a nine-page proposal explaining the steps necessary to accomplish the office moves, providing diagrams of the spaces involved, listing estimated costs, and pointing out the benefits of the plan. The Management Team also submitted a letter of support signed by 13 court and county staff, including the two district court judges, Sally Robertson and Jay Carlson.

Following Ladd's and Malone's presentations, Judge Robertson rose and addressed the board to emphasize the need for space for a second assistant county attorney and support staff.

"It's almost a miracle to have the consensus of all the people in this room," she said, referring to the group assembled to support the plan. "We've had lots of discussions over many years [about this]. This proposal meets the most pressing need - for Kyra to have more space. ... We're adults. We can share. We will work with you. We can make it work for the benefit of the public."

Commissioners Dave Hillukka, Rodney Bounds and Sheldon Monson were opposed and Commissioners Bill Stearns and Jim Hofer responded positively. Hillukka expressed concern that he just now found out about the plan.

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"Discussions about space on an informal basis have been going on all the time everywhere for years," Stearns said. "We had a discussion just last summer of plans by [architect] BHH presented to the board by Ryan [Odden, County Engineer]."

"There may be a few space conflicts, but we can work those out," Hofer said. But he did not want to vote on the new proposal until the bids had come in for the court remodel project.

Monson asked whether the schedule of the district court would alter the county board's meeting schedule if the board room move takes place, and was told "no" by Judge Robertson.

Bounds raised multiple objections to problems that might occur, including that Sentenced to Service crews might not have time to work on the project, that the commissioners would have to enter a secured area, that the Sheriff would have to hire more staff to search people entering a secured area for the meetings, that there were many unknown factors, that it would cost money to put up a service window for the Veterans' Service Office at its new location.

All the commissioners except Stearns said that they did not want to vote on the proposal at this meeting.

"Can we set a timeframe" for a vote? Malone asked.

"When will we know about the bids for the court remodeling project?" Robertson asked.

County Coordinator Curt Kreklau said that the bids would come in that week and would be on the agenda for the Feb. 17 meeting.

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Kreklau said bids will be awarded depending on the board's willingness to discuss them.

"I don't know if we can make a decision so quickly," Bounds said.

Hofer added, "If the bids are reasonably close [to the estimates], that would be huge [in moving forward with the work]. But we are already two to three months behind our original schedule. To delay it any further could affect some of the contractors who submitted bids."

"This is a feeble attempt on your parts to spin our wheels over and over again," Sheriff Mike Carr said. "Sometimes I wish you'd sit down and come up with a plan yourselves. Dave, you've been a commissioner for how long? Don't say you haven't heard about it. This [delaying] is a waste of taxpayer money. I don't want to attend [a whole lot more meetings]. I don't want to sit and waste everybody's time. Let's move forward and set a date."

The Sheriff said he felt there was a lack of respect for the department heads coming from commissioners.

Judge Jay Carlson suggested, "Why not schedule this meeting for when you accept the bids for the courthouse remodel?"

Stearns explained the situation.

"There's only one bid, from [the general contractor] Hytech. Everything is pre-bid on pre-arranged prices [when you work through NJPA as we are doing]. If the subcontractors can perform the work at the set prices, there will be a presentation here about that, and we'll know the bottom dollar. ... It could all be over next Tuesday if we get the information [on the subcontractors].

Hofer said, "The estimate was $454,000 including the architect fee, if STS can do the demolition. If [the bid total] is more than that, we have to go back to the drawing board. By next Tuesday, we should know.

Monson said, "In good faith, let's set a work session date."

The date was discussed extensively, and finally set for noon on March 12 for a work session to go over all commissioner questions about the court remodeling project and the plan presented by the Management Team to solve the County Attorney's space problems.

In other business, the board:

• Heard an annual report from Deana Malone, Director of Planning, Zoning, and Parks, about her department's work in 2014.

• Discussed an addendum to the agreement for labor attorney services between the county and Dyan Ebert and her firm, Quinlivan and Hughes, St Cloud, to specify which county staff are allowed to call Ebert and which are not.

• Heard a report from constituent Brad Hanson about highway maintenance work being done on his street between Sebeka and Nimrod, that involved cutting down trees and hauling away the wood without the permission of the property owners. Hanson and Odden discussed the situation with commissioners. A decision was made that in the future, when highway maintenance work is going to be done, Odden will send postcards to all affected property owners explaining the work and asking whether they wish to keep the wood or have it hauled away by the county.

• Odden explained that because the county holds easements on all the rights of way along this county road, that the county is under no obligation to notify landowners or get their permission for anything. But he agreed that it made sense to send the postcards and avoid misunderstandings if possible.

• Awarded the county's three-year contract for solid waste hauling to the low bidder, Becker Transportation LLC.

• Approved a contract renewal with Morris Electronics.

• Approved tobacco sales licenses for Orton's Menahga Citgo, LAC Menahga C-Store, Chuck's Country Foods and Shell Sport & Bait.

Related Topics: WADENA COUNTY BOARD
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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