by CHRIS ROGERS
Whether counted by staff or by dollars, the community services department is Winona County’s largest. The 102-person, $15-million agency makes up nearly a third of the county’s budget and more than a third of its staff. Its programs help hungry families, empower people with disabilities, and assist veterans in getting the health care the nation promised them. The department also plays an important role in the fiscal challenges facing Winona County. “It’s a vital position,” County Board Chair Jim Pomeroy said of the department director. “It needs to be filled,” County Board member Marcia Ward stated.
Now it will be. Yesterday morning, the County Board agreed to offer the department’s top job to Heather Johnson, and yesterday afternoon, Johnson confirmed she will accept it and be the next Winona County Community Services director. Johnson is a 22-year veteran of the Olmsted County Community Services department. “I kind of climbed the ladder, if you will,” she said of her career there, explaining that over the years she worked in child support, income maintenance, adult services, and now child and family services. She is currently a supervisor for the larger county’s child protection unit.
Winona County Assistant Administrator Maureen Holte said that other Winona County department heads, members of the county’s Community Services Advisory Committee, and the leaders of local school districts and social services nonprofits all participated in interviewing and reviewing candidates for the job. “It’s a collection of everyone’s feedback that made [Johnson] the top pick,” Holte stated. “From my perspective, I think she is very calm, collected, and has high attention to detail — a knowledgable individual,” Holte added.
County Board member Marie Kovecsi said she did not get to meet Johnson, but was comfortable with the appointment after querying Fritz. “It seemed to me that [Johnson] is coming from a fairly big program, bigger than ours, but she was still intrigued enough to come over here and take on the leadership position,” Kovecsi stated in an inteview.
“I’m excited. It’s a wonderful community,” Johnson said of Winona County. “I’m kind of at the perfect time in my life where opportunities have presented themselves to take the next leadership step. So, after a lot of prayer and thoughtfulness around this, this opportunity came up, and I thought, this would be a wonderful step forward,” she added.
The department’s last chief, Beth Wilms, left in July for a new job. Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz has filled in as interim director while the county worked on replacing Wilms and two other senior positions.
“I think it’s a critical position for the county,” Kovecsi stated. “It’s one of our largest budget areas, the services that come out of it are critical, and we know they’ve been short-staffed with supervisors.”
Underneath the community services director, there are three lieutenants with the title “supervisor,” who oversee scores of social workers and other staff. One of those positions was vacant for several months this year, and the Citizens Review Panel — a group of volunteers charged with overseeing and assisting the county’s efforts to protect children from neglect and abuse — raised concerns about that in April. The panel told the County Board that two supervisors for nearly 100 staff members does not provide enough oversight to ensure social workers’ caseloads are manageable and that they are getting the direction they need to do their jobs. Longtime supervisor Karen Moore retired shortly after Wilms resigned, and for a short period, there was just Fritz and one full-time social services supervisor. Those supervisor positions have since been filled, and once Johnson starts, the department’s leadership will be at full strength again.
“I think it’s nice to be at full staff,” Kovecsi said.
Johnson will start near the top of the pay scale for the Winona County position, $114,000.
County Board’s role in hiring
According to board members, the County Board was invited to sit in on interviews with candidates. Members of the public and media were not. Ward, Kovecsi, and Pomeroy all said they did not go to the interviews and did not meet Johnson. Ward said she quizzed Fritz on Johnson’s qualifications, adding, “He was very comfortable making that recommendation.”
The County Board;s involvement in hiring department heads has varied over the years. A 2010 policy change — which some commissioners said was snuck past the board — gave hiring authority to the county administrator. When Wilms was hired, the County Board was involved in interviewing candidates. Later that year, in a 3-2 vote, the County Board took back the authority to approve or deny the appointment of non-elected department heads. That policy does not clarify whether the board is involved in interviewing candidates. In 2015 and this spring, the County Board got something like an interview from finalists vying to become the head of the planning and environmental services department. Those candidates gave presentations to the County Board at meetings that were open to the public, as required by state law, and County Board members had a chance to ask the candidates a few questions and provide feedback on the candidates to Fritz.
In Johnson’s hiring, Fritz simply made a recommendation to the County Board and they approved it unanimously.
Ward, commissioner Steve Jacob, and former commissioner Wayne Valentine were proponents of the County Board having the authority to approve or deny department head appointments, while Pomeroy and commissioner Greg Olson opposed it. Supporters said that department heads are important and the County Board should be involved in the decision to hire them. Opponents said that the County Board’s involvement makes the hiring process too political.