A tiny phrase sparked a big debate at the Winona County Board's Tuesday meeting. During a discussion of the County Administrator job description on Tuesday, commissioners remained split in an on-going debate over how powerful the next administrator should be in relation to the board, other employees, and elected officials. The County Board has been discussing the issue of how much free rein to give the next administrator since former administrator Duane Hebert was fired for alleged gross misconduct in early May. Commissioners Steve Jacob, Wayne Valentine, and Marcia Ward advocated reining in administrative discretion. Pomeroy and Olson dissented. Jacob said he supported changes because of past problems. "If you gave Duane an inch, a lot of times he'd interpret it as a mile," Jacob explained in an interview. Board members have yet to formally vote on the issue, but their visions for the county's highest position were clearly divided on Tuesday, or as commissioner Jim Pomeroy put it, "Maybe it's just one of those 3-2 [vote] things."
What divided the board most was a seemingly benign phrase from a draft job description: that the administrator "exercises independent judgment."
In the last two months, commissioners Valentine, Jacob, and Ward have directed staff to overhaul the county's previous job description and prepare a draft that focuses more on teamwork, respecting the autonomy of elected department heads like the County Attorney and Recorder, and operating within the County Board's direction. A new draft job description prepared by Interim Administrator Maureen Holte and her staff still concerned Valentine and Jacob, who proposed striking the phrase "the administrator exercises independent judgment in decision making" among other edits.
If, in the future, the board feels the administrator made decisions that were not in line with the board's direction, "he could use that and say, 'I used my independent judgment,'" Valentine said. "[If I were the administrator] I could use that to my advantage. I just think it might be something that could come back to haunt us."
"Looking back to what happened with our solar project, was that an exercise of an independent judgment?" Jacob asked, referring to a proposed solar project that sparked threats of a lawsuit against the county. An outside investigation into the project concluded that Hebert had failed to disclose his family ties to the firm vying for the contract, and board members have said they were unaware that county staff had proceeded with plans for the project beyond grant applications that the board had approved.
Later, Jacob's desire to to strike the language was the result of "just being a little gun shy coming off the administrator we had being very assertive with that language. That administrator did so much good for the county, but I think that's where my hesitation comes from: finding someone who may take that and run with it."
During the meeting and in interviews Valentine and Jacob brought up spending decisions, staffing changes, and other policy actions that previous administrators made without consulting the board.
When asked in a subsequent interview, Valentine explained that he was not stating that the phrase had been used by Hebert to justify specific actions, but noted that in 2013 the board approved the solar project grant application and requested that any further action come back for board approval. "The first I heard that we had received a grant for the solar project was in the Parks and Environment Committee minutes," Valentine said. He added that during Hebert's tenure, county staff told him they were disallowed from contacting commissioners. "They were always afraid that they would be reprimanded for talking to a commissioner," he said.
At the meeting, Pomeroy responded to the proposal to strike the language, saying, "I think if you're going to pay someone $100,000 a year they had best be able to have some independent judgment. I'm not interested in a situation where you have an administrator who doesn't feel like he can move a foot to the left or to the right without calling members of the board and saying, 'Gosh, may I do this?'"
Olson agreed, "I think [that position] does exercise independent judgment, and we don't want to have someone that can't, or feels they need permission to."
County Attorney Karin Sonneman suggested the phrasing "exercises independent judgment with direction from and consultation with the board."
Valentine and Ward supported Sonneman's suggestion, but it did not alleviate Pomeroy's concern. "Are we asking the administrator to poll every board member before he makes an independent decision?" he asked.
This would not remove the administrator's ability to make urgent decisions without the board, Jacob said. Rather it is expected that he or she would, he continued, but Jacob said he did not want a future administrator to cite "independent judgment" as a justification for actions taken without board support.
"If it's expected and anticipated in the position, why do you want to eliminate it? That doesn't make sense," returned Olson. "You say it's expected, it's inherent to the position, but we just don't want to say it because they might use it against us. Well, we have the ultimate authority to remove the person if we don't like their independent judgment."
Ultimately, an informal vote of commissioners — Jacob, Valentine, and Ward — supported Sonneman's suggestion.
Jacob and Valentine also advocated for language that made it clear that the administrator did not have authority over elected department heads, but rather needed to "work closely with elected department heads." Olson and Pomeroy argued that the administrator should have a certain amount of oversight for administrative functions such as purchasing.