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'It's complicated': Wadena County board seeks to prioritize a long list of concerns before them

Wadena County Commissioners sought to prioritize ongoing issues in the county government Thursday, Feb. 28, and they agreed the top priority is ... improving the working relationship between the county attorney's office and Human Services. Particularly how the two work together in child protection cases.

The divide felt between the two offices was apparent after numerous employees were interviewed as well as the department heads. It's been called a "philosophical difference" in the past and was again on Tuesday by County Commission chairman Bill Stearns. During the latest meeting, County Attorney Kyra Ladd said it's a matter of the departments knowing their roles and doing their jobs. Human Services director Tanya Leskey was not present at this meeting Thursday.

In a previous meeting, Leskey said she's attempted to resolve the issues by sitting down with the county attorney but that those meetings never happened because of a refusal to meet. While Leskey was not present during the latest meeting, Ladd noted that she has record of many meetings held but meetings and more outside studies are not the answer, because, as Ladd said "it's not a matter of communication."

While Commissioner Jim Hofer said he wished the parties could sit down, discuss their differences and come away with a handshake, Ladd said it's not that simple.

She said discussion has revealed that the message she shares in those meetings is not well taken and that spending more money studying what's been studied was a poor idea.

"I am not interested in spending more taxpayer money on outside resources," Ladd said.

Neither were county commissioners, who already spent taxpayer money on the David Drown Associates organizational study and another consultant group for the environmental scan.

At least a partially where the problem stems from is the way Human Services and the attorney's office work together on child protection cases, commissioners said. Commissioner Monson said that when a deputy brings a case to the county attorney, there is a certain amount of respect shown to either party, whether the attorney's office is able to take on a case or not. He said the same is expected when a social worker brings a case to the attorney's office, if the case can't be taken, it may not be liked, but a decision should be respected, he said.

One idea that commissioners felt worthy was one by Stearns who thought a paralegal could be brought in to serve in the Human Services office. He called the conflict a complicated situation but felt this position could deal specifically with preparing cases to bring to the county attorney. Kangas was not so sure that that position would resolve the turnover rate seen in that department.

Commissioner Hofer mentioned that there have been some good steps forward for the two departments to work together, including a new comprehensive reentry position, which brings the jail and social workers working more closely. Another initiative, the Children's Justice Initiative is a collaboration between the Minnesota Judicial Branch and the Minnesota Department of Human Services. These two state entities work closely with the local juvenile courts, court administrators, social services agencies, county attorneys, guardians ad litem, attorneys for parents and children, tribes, and other key stakeholders in each of Minnesota's counties. Commissioner Kangas, who was named the new liaison to Human Services, said he felt this relationship issue between Human Services and the attorney's office was of chief concern as he has had the most feedback about it. He believes the issues are causing a lot of staff turnover.

"We're losing a lot of employees, good employees, it's not good," Kangas said. While the organizational study called for mediation using the Bureau of Mediation Services, he did not think that was the answer, rather he thought commissioners should start holding the departments accountable. He likened it to a situation earlier in the conversation, where County Coordinator Ryan Odden was told Sentence To Serve had a long list of jobs to do, so was unable to help with courthouse demolition projects. At the same time County Attorney Ladd was told that the STS crew actually was looking for something to do and was not busy.

"It bothers me," Kangas said of the different stories he was hearing.

Stearns called on Kangas and Odden to work together with Human Services to look into the high turnover rates.

Other areas receiving extensive discussion over a 2-hour period included:

• Converting to a full-time administrator. Commissioners seemed to agree this was something to look at in future years, if funding allowed for such a position. Commissioner Jim Hofer said they've ignored the advice twice now to go to a full-time administrator, "which we're good at." He felt that maybe in two years the county would be ready for that kind of change.

• Video recording meetings. Commissioners seemed to agree that if the demand was there, they would look into it, but the recent estimate of $52,000 to implement the recording was cost prohibitive.

• A list of 10 areas to improve in Human Resources was the most extensive of the departments but commissioners spent most time talking about how policies need to be developed, employees need to feel appreciated and training needs to be ongoing.

One area of immediate concern was that a personnel policy review had already been performed by an outside group and that the review has been sitting idle since 2016 with HR director Curt Kreklau. There was discussion about getting the review brought before the commissioners as soon as possible, with Commissioner Sheldon Monson saying it was a finished product that the commissioners should have before them.

Odden asked Kreklau to bring him the information to bring this forward to commissioners at a future meeting.

• Liaison assignments were made with the intention that commissioners would continue to serve as liaisons to their respective departments. The question of whether they should serve as liaisons at all seemed to hang on the administrator question. Kangas said he found value in liaisons as a way for commissioners to understand county government.

"I don't see it as a micromanaging tool," Kangas said. "I see it as a way to see how county government operates."

Commissioner Chuck Horsager was open to the liaison model but found value in a CEO model, where there is one point person that reports to the board.

"What happens in that model is the board holds the CEO responsible," Horsager said.

Commissioner Hofer was in favor of phasing out liaisons but only after a full-time administrator is in place.

Kangas responded that he didn't see the board having a purpose if the administrator/CEO was making the decisions and doing all the communications with the departments. He did not want to lose touch with the departments.

"We're here to service the public," Kangas said.

Monson said he found value in the liaison approach as long as it is not misused by a department, trying to bend the ear of the commissioner in their favor.

Speaking from her department, Cindy Pederson said she did not want to lose touch with the commissioners as she had seen happen in other counties, where an employee has to go through multiple channels before being able to access a commissioner.

The board looked to the management team to define the role of a county administrator to see if it would suit the desires of the board to be connected, yet maybe have fewer meetings to attend. For example, aside from regular full board meetings, which take place at least three times a month, commissioners Monson, Hofer, Stearns and Horsager are also responsible for attending about 25 other committees related to county government.There are over 80 different committees, some only meet once a year.

• Defining a strategic vision was another suggestion and commissioners found that a strategic plan had been done in 2015, yet it was laid on a shelf to collect dust. They agreed the plan should be brought out for review and implementation.

County staff attending the meeting included Human Resources/IT director Curt Kreklau, County Coordinator Ryan Odden, Human Services accounting supervisor Amie Gendron, Public Health Director Cindy Pederson, County Auditor/Treasurer Heather Olson, County Recorder Soledad Henriksen, IT coordinator Dave Hotchkiss and County Attorney Kyra Ladd.