When Winona County Auditor/Treasurer Sue Rivers retired late last month, the Winona County Board voted to appoint Pat Moga, Winona County Finance Director, to the post. He is expected to serve in the Auditor/Treasurer role on an interim basis, until the board can appoint a person for the remainder of Rivers’ term, which expires at the end of 2014. The Auditor/Treasurer seat will then be up for election, as the post is an elected one.
The board has debated in the past whether the Auditor/Treasurer position should be changed permanently to be filled by appointment, rather than election. However, since Rivers announced her resignation, board members insist that appointing someone to fill the post until the term expires does not preclude it from being an elected position in the future. In order to change the Auditor/Treasurer role from an elected to an appointed position, the county would either have to ask voters for permission via ballot, or request special legislation from the state to make the change, which would not require voter approval.
On Tuesday, board members did discuss the process to be used to recruit and appoint a person to fill the spot until the election. Some felt that Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert should appoint someone, using the same kind of authority he holds when hiring county department heads. However, Commissioner Marcia Ward said she preferred that candidates be interviewed by the full board and in a public forum.
In order for the full board to be present during interviews with “final” candidates, the interviews must be open to the public. The board would be allowed under law to interview “semi-finalists” behind closed doors, and later discuss their preferences using numbers or letters rather than names. Data on semi-finalists is not considered public data.
Board member Wayne Valentine said he wouldn’t mind if a committee that included just a few commissioners conducted interviews. If fewer than a voting majority of commissioners are present during interviews with “finalists,” the interviews may be conducted in private. Valentine added that if that option were taken, he wanted to make sure that the opinions of county board members on candidates were weighed in the decision. He added that board input is not always sought by Hebert when hiring.
Ward continued to advocate that the full board and the public have access to interviews of finalists. “Ultimately, it will be an elected position, so I think the public should know all of that,“ she said.
Board member Jim Pomeroy warned that lawsuits regarding hiring practices have been more common in recent years, and that the county has to be very careful about how it conducts interviews. “I think in this day and age one has to be extremely, extremely cautious about utilizing that kind of process,” he said.
Ward said this situation was different from a typical hiring of a county employee. This decision would normally come on the ballot, she said, adding she felt the public should have access to how the county determines who the appointee will be.
“But it is a technical position,” argued Pomeroy. He said that Hebert has done a good job with hiring authority for department heads, and he felt the three department heads selected by Hebert were doing a good job. Pomeroy added that when commissioners have had hiring authority in the past, it has created problems. One employee, after being hired by the Winona County Board with a vote of 3-2, quit by the next morning, he said. “What a great start that would be,” he added.
Ward said that citizens elect presidents and members of Congress in close votes all the time. She said this is an elected position, adding, “When you put your name on a ballot as a candidate, the public has to vet your qualifications and experience level.”
Hebert said he is gathering input from employees in the Auditor/Treasurer Department in order to create a list of qualifications for the Auditor/Treasurer position. He said he would bring the issue back to the board in the coming months for a formal vote on the process to fill the position for the remainder of the term.