Winona County is about to tackle an issue that has divided past boards and prompted highly-charged debate among elected officials: who is in charge when it comes to hiring high-level department heads?
That authority currently rests in the hands of County Administrator Duane Hebert, but after former Board Chair Mena Kaehler was defeated by new board member Steve Jacob in the last election, the County Board appears to have majority support to take back that hiring authority.
"What constituents want is to be able to influence their government," said Jacob, who said on Tuesday that voters told him they wanted the elected board to hold the reins when it comes to selecting county department heads.
The hiring authority issue has been a controversial topic for several years. In October 2010, the board voted to update several personnel policies, including policies meant to prevent nepotism, a policy outlining disciplinary procedures, and one that addresses recruitment and hiring processes. Included in the package of policies was a two-word change that removed "County Board" and added "County Administrator" in the policy that dictates who has the final say when it comes to selecting department heads. The vote was included in the board's "Consent Agenda" as a routine item, and commissioners did not discuss or acknowledge the change.
After a Winona Post report later drew attention to the switch in hiring authority, several commissioners said they were unaware of the change. Commissioner Marcia Ward said she believed the change was "slipped by" the board. She has since taken the lead in efforts to restore the hiring authority to County Commissioners.
Hebert at the time defended the 2010 policy change as one meant to reflect a board decision made in 2005 – during a meeting held before Hebert was employed by Winona County and prior to any commissioner sitting on the board except Ward herself.
In 2011 Ward requested to be more involved in the process of selecting a new department head to oversee Planning, Environmental Services and Emergency Management departments. Two finalists were interviewed, although most of the interview sessions were not open to the public. As there were 23 other applicants not selected for interviews, Ward requested to review the applications of those who were not named as finalists. County administration denied her access to the applications, citing they were "private personnel" data and thus, she could not view them.
Hebert rejected that interview process and released a memo to the press accusing Ward of invalidating the recruitment effort by making an age-related comment about an applicant. He alleged the comment occurred outside of the official interview process, and that no one heard it but he. Ward denied making any such remark. Hebert also alleged Ward's comment cost the county between $8,000 and $10,000 in new recruitment costs, but later admitted the cost to repost for the position was $1,667.
During the second round of interviews for the Planning, Environmental Services and Emergency Management Director position, Ward again requested to view applicant data. She was allowed to look at the applications, but nearly everything — including applicant names, past employers and universities they had attended — was redacted.
Ward and current Board Chair Wayne Valentine requested that the board vote again on the policy that dictates hiring authority in the fall of 2011. A Winona Post report showed at the time that county administrators gave the board and the public different information about how hiring had been handled by county leaders in the past, and that at least one past board decision was misrepresented in the public version, implying that the board had given the administrator and personnel director hiring authority in 2006 when it had in fact simply clarified a process for staff members to request employee vacancies be filled. In a 3-2 vote, with Ward and Valentine in the minority, the board voted to continue to afford the county administrator the final say in department head selection.
A new board
With Jacob as the third vote, the County Board may soon change recent history and reclaim hiring authority. But, if initial comments predict the outcome of any changes, the board won't reinvent the wheel to take the reins.
The board discussed the potential change at a recent strategic planning session, and asked Hebert to gather information about how other counties handle department head hiring. Hebert brought a two-paragraph memo to the Tuesday meeting which indicated that six of the seven counties that responded to his inquiry have their boards take the final vote on department head hires, while the seventh county indicated its board played a role in the entire process, including interviews.
Winona County Commissioners said they wanted more information about how those other counties hire department heads, including a look into their policies. Board members said information on what processes have been used in Winona County would also be helpful to review.
Jacob said the board did not have to be involved in every aspect of the hiring process, but said that if the full board took a vote on the finalist recommended, it would add credibility to the procedure.
Valentine told the board that he had asked many commissioners from other counties about their hiring practices during a recent Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) meeting, and said the majority — if not all — he'd spoken with are involved in processes used to hire for department head positions.
According to the AMC Handbook, a publication that is often used by Minnesota counties as a guide for compliance with state statutes, the kind of county government system used in Winona County places some limits on the powers of the County Administrator position. "Absent specific statutory authority, a county board may not delegate its responsibility for hiring and firing personnel, determining working conditions, setting salaries and establishing personnel policies," states the handbook.
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