by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County leaders hope to hire a new Planning and Environmental Services Director next month after an over-six-month vacancy in the post. County Board members watched presentations from two finalists last week: Joel Dietl, the planning manager for the city of Franklin, Wis., and Kay Qualley, an environmental planner for the city of Fridley, Minn. County Board members Marie Kovecsi and Steve Jacob praised both candidates, especially Qualley.
Whomever the County Board ultimately hires will play an important role in guiding sometimes-contentious permitting decisions and changes to the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan, as well as overseeing 15 staff members; a $2.7 million annual budget; well, septic, and feedlot inspection programs; the county’s economic development department; county parks; and the county’s $1.1-million-per-year recycling program. Former director Jason Gilman was well-respected by people on both sides of contentious land use issues for his fair representation of issues facing the County Board and Planning Commission. He took a job in La Crosse in 2015. Former director Eric Evenson-Marden was in the post for less than a year before departing last August.
Dietl and Qualley both work in city governments currently, overseeing three and two staff members, respectively. Dietl has worked for Franklin, Wis., for the last 11 years, and worked for the Brown County (Wis.) Planning Commission and Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission before that — experience that dates back to 1994. Qualley has somewhat less experience. She has worked as an environmental planner for Fridley, Minn., since 2012, and ran her own landscape design, planning, and consulting firm from 2006 to 2012. Before that she was executive director of the Oshkosh, Minn., Symphony Orchestra. Qualley worked on watershed planning, transportation plans, stormwater compliance, grant writing, and environmental initiatives in Fridley. Dietl oversaw city zoning, economic development work, outdoor recreation planning, and enforced quarry operation rules in Franklin, Wis.
Three County Board members — Jacob, Kovecsi, and Marcia Ward — attended mock public hearing presentations from Dietl and Qualley last week, and along with a handful of county staff members, they scored the candidates’ presentations. Qualley scored higher, with an average of four out of five points, compared to Dietl’s 3.5 points. County administrator Ken Fritz said county staff did not keep track of what scores the three County Board members gave the candidates versus what scores unelected staff members gave the candidates.
“I thought they were both quite qualified,” Kovecsi said in an interview after the presentations. There were some differences in the presentations, she continued. “One candidate did some research and pulled information from the county,” Kovecsi stated. Both Dietl and Qualley gave presentations on a fictitious application for a large rural church, daycare center, and religious bookstore. Qualley cited specific sections of the Winona County’s Zoning Ordinance during her presentation on a fictitious permit application. Dietl summarized the applicable rules without citing specific ordinance sections.
In an interview last week, Jacob said that Qualley’s presentation seemed impartial. “I felt like there was no inkling that she was trying to influence the outcome,” Jacob said. To Jacob, fairness and impartiality is more important than experience. “People that are of the highest integrity — those are the building blocks of where we need to get to in the county,” he said. “And if a person has every piece of technical knowledge that probably doesn’t rate as high for me as having the right ethics and moral compass.”
Qualley has friends in Lewiston and Dietl has family in Trempealeau. Both were excited about the chance to move to the area.
In an interview with the Winona Post, Dietl said he wanted to work cooperatively with citizens, organizations, and other governments. In particular, he said developing partnerships with farmers, not just enforcing rules, would lead to better buy-in on conservation efforts in the long run. “Is it too steep to farm? That’s common sense to them … They don’t need a law to tell them to protect all that stuff,” he stated.
Asked about how he would handle controversial issues, Dietl said that it is important for county officials to keep an open mind. “If enough information comes to light that says ‘we should change,’ we should change,” he stated.
Qualley said she appreciated the farms and natural resources of Winona County and the work citizens and county leaders have put into land use planning. “The framework the county has established with an excellent comprehensive plan and excellent zoning ordinance — it’s really a place that has very thoughtfully produced the kind of guiding documents that a position like this needs,” she said. That, she added, is a sign that the public is engaged.
Asked how she would handle controversial issues, Qualley said the ordinance and comprehensive plan set up the process and criteria for decisions. “You work within that, but you try to make sure that information is available and you’re trying to get community input about what is important to them, so the community feels part of the input process and not apart from the input process,” she stated.
In private meetings, Fritz, Winona County Personnel Director Maureen Holte, and a panel of county staff members and interested community membership, including representatives from the Land Stewardship Project, conducted full interviews with Dietl and Qualley. Under the current plan, the Winona County Board will not get a chance to interview the candidates before Fritz and Holte recommend one candidate to the County Board for a final hiring decision. In 2013, the County Board passed a policy specifying that the board, not the administrator, holds the authority for hiring department heads. Jacob and Kovecsi said they were comfortable with the proposed hiring process.
Holte expects a final hiring decision would likely come before the County Board for a vote in early April.