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County climate: Staff, commission look to resolve strife between and within Wadena County departments

Wadena County is dealing with departmental concerns leading into 2019. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

In 2016, an internal look at operations within Wadena County identified strengths and numerous weaknesses within departments as well as between departments. Some of those issues still need to be addressed today.

The assessment, known as an environmental scan, was completed in January 2017 and presented to county commissioners and department heads. Department heads were given two weeks to come up with plans to try to improve the overall climate of their areas, according to county commissioner Jim Hofer.

Two years later, county commissioners bemoaned the fact that little headway had been made. One department has presented their status before the full board, Human Services Director, hoping something will be done sooner rather than later to improve communications and collaborations.

Environmental scan history

The scan involved hearing feedback from 103 people within the county government. The scan started in August 2016, where questionnaires were developed in conversations with department heads and went to employees and department heads. The plan was for the consultant, Michelle Soldo, to "receive the information and make clear facts and specific findings as it relates to the strengths and challenges departments are having individually." On Dec. 28, 2016, with Commissioner Hofer and Commissioner Dave Hillukka, there were phone conversations with five or six department heads to discuss their reports and in January 2017, a full day of discussion was had about the specific findings made by Ms. Soldo.

Ms. Soldo went over the findings in her report and reported there are 13 departments that she did very specific review of. Of those 13, six have a healthy, productive work environment. She said they are under recognized and recommended that the board give them more recognition.

The scan was prompted by a couple major situations including reports of harassment within the auditor/treasurer office, specifically findings that accused auditor/treasurer Judy Taves of creating a hostile work environment. Along with that was turnover associated with the hiring of Tanya Leskey as Human Services Director in 2014 after the retirement of long-time director Paul Sailer.

While that was the situation then, now the county commissioners are dealing with a courthouse remodel, recently switched up staffing in the IT department, a new county coordinator, a new auditor/treasurer and a market study, all having an effect on issues brought up within the environmental scan. And by all indications, the changes coming down the pipeline will never stop impacting the county's many employees. But it appears, at least for the moment, it could be a morale buster if plans to move ahead in a positive direction are not addressed soon, as was mentioned in the environmental scan.

County board action

"It really grieves me that people don't work together, departments don't work together," Commissioner Chuck Horsager said upon hearing what issues were identified in the environmental scan and are ongoing two years later. He felt that considering time and money has been spent on these efforts, there needs to be an effort to resolve it. He hoped in the coming months.

While a $30,000 number was mentioned during the last meeting, it's not clear just how much the environmental scan cost taxpayers so far. County coordinator Ryan Odden said he would try to find that cost but did not have it available by press time.

Board chair Sheldon Monson said that the board should empower the county coordinator, HR director and department heads to move in a positive direction. Commissioner Hofer agreed and said the county commissioners should direct the departments to actively work out conflicts.

"We can't just leave it up to staff to resolve it, it takes our intervention and our support," Hofer said.

A delayed resolution was precisely what attorney and consultant Michelle Soldo had hoped to avoid following the completion of the environmental scan. Soldo handled the consulting work involved in the scan.The following was a part of the board minutes the day Soldo reported to the board.

"If productive change is going to happen, it has to start at the top. It starts with the leadership of the Board, empowering department heads to do what it is they need to do to be successful in their departments, working with departments as a liaison to try to resolve some of the issues identified as part of the review, it is the next steps that have to happen. If those steps happen, much of the issues will be resolved and not continue into 2018 if 2017 is made into a productive year."

Commissioner Jim Hofer laid some blame on himself during a December 2018 board meeting saying he hadn't "pulled out the cattle prod," but said it was time to start pushing.

Commissioner Dave Hillukka took it a step farther stating that it appeared those who have not presented their plans were departments led by elected officials. He said the elected officials don't have to do what the county board requests but the county board holds the "purse strings" and "there might be a little more budget slashing," in a form of retaliation.

With Hillukka retiring at the end of 2018, Hofer is the lone member of the board that remains a part of the environmental scan committee until another is likely named in January.

Hofer summed up what needs to happen and what he believes will happen soon.

"In a nutshell, can we look at the problems and identify solutions?" Hofer asked rhetorically. "We got this report, golly we oughta be able to sit down and make it happen. It just takes some time and information."

"I'm optimistic," Hofer continued. "I think we're getting on the same page."

Hofer said he expects to have the blueprints from the prospective departments in January to make these changes happen. Hofer believes it's up to him to facilitate in these situations and that ultimately the taxpayers deserve to have county departments working together efficiently and effectively.

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