After a brief honeymoon period over at the Winona County government center with the arrival of new County Administrator Duane Hebert and new commissioners Mena Kaehler, Wayne Valentine, and Greg Olson, fresh contention and even sharp hostilities have erupted to more or less renew some old battle lines. A recent bizarre development was the dissemination to the local media by Administrator Hebert of a “confidential memo” accusing Commissioner Marcia Ward of invalidating the hiring process of a new county department head by making comments to Hebert of an age-discriminatory nature.
This allegation is especially weird, first of all, by Ward’s denial of it and, second, by any lack of corroboration, the referenced conversation having taken place in private. Stranger yet, Ward had no part in the hiring process, a bone of contention about which more later. Even had she made some untoward reference to the age of an applicant, which she denies, the sensible response from Hebert would have been to point out that he couldn’t take age into account in making the hire and move along. In that case there would have been no question of any discrimination and, more to the point, no one to make any complaint.
Hebert accuses Ward of costing the county $8,000 to $10,000 with her supposed gaffe, (a figure that doesn’t stand up unless one counts the cost of routine payroll twice), but it was clearly his inexplicable decision alone to raise the issue, a shocking and indefensible attack on one of his bosses, Commissioner Ward, which can easily be construed as an intolerable insubordination.
This incident takes place within the context of a broader dispute about who has the final responsibility for hiring department heads in the first place. Until October of last year this clearly was the prerogative of the board alone, but in a meeting then, an item was placed in the consent agenda transferring that authority to the County Administrator without any warning or discussion. Commissioner Ward’s feeling is that the change was slipped past the board by stealth and she and Commissioner Valentine have asked that the issue be revisited, which seems to have been delayed until the August 9th meeting, after the new county department head position will have been filled by Hebert.
It seems that the opinion of Commissioners Kaehler and Olson is that the hiring authority ought to rest with the County Administrator, who the latter described to the Post as a professional who has the skills and knowledge to do the job right. However in this instance the Administrator has raised an issue of discrimination where none existed, and may well have run afoul of regulations governing the airing of “private personnel data,” according to Minnesota Newspaper Attorney Mark Anfinson. This he did in the memo accusing Ward sent to the local media, a move which doesn’t say much for his professional expertise or judgment.
In the meantime Commissioner Ward has been stonewalled in her requests for information on county job applicants, and scolded sharply by board chair Kaehler at the last board meeting for wasting time and money by badgering county employees for the answers to various questions, which should be addressed solely to Hebert, she seems to think.
All this wouldn’t particularly raise eyebrows, except for recent history in which featured county department heads squirreled away tax dollars through accounting tricks and budgetary sleight-of-hand until they had what they needed to construct a new building never authorized by the board of commissioners, who were variously slumbering and/or tilting at windmills. After this experience it seems more than odd that any of the current crop of commissioners would want to hand their authority from the voters over to unelected and unaccountable county employees.