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Compromise struck on county leadership (08/05/2014)
By Chris Rogers
After nearly three months of debate, the Winona County Board is expected to finalize the job description for the next county administrator on Tuesday. Disagreement over how county government should be managed and by whom surfaced at meeting after meeting as the board sought to define the role of the county's top executive and, by association, department heads, commissioners, and other elected officials. At its last meeting, however, the board reached a compromise on the most divisive phrase of the job description: independent judgment.

The existing job description states that the county administrator exercises independent judgment. Commissioners Steve Jacob and Wayne Valentine expressed concern about the potential for an administrator to use that phrase to justify taking actions without board approval. Commissioners Greg Olson and Jim Pomeroy have balked at the prospect of deleting the phrase, arguing that, of course, the county administrator needs to exercise independent judgment. At the board's last meeting, an informal decision was reached, in which Valentine, Jacob, and County Board Chair Marcia Ward supported phrasing suggested by County Attorney Karin Sonneman: "with direction from and in consultation with the County Board, the administrator position exercises independent judgment in decision making."

"I know we deliberated and I don't like it," Olson said of that language at the board's last meeting. "Are we inviting an Open Meeting Law violation in that they're going to call us all and poll us?" he asked, suggesting that by limiting the administrator's ability to act independently, the administrator might wind up conducting serial or rolling meetings in which decisions are reached by polling or having a series of conversations with a majority of board members outside of an open meeting.

While Olson's concern was about a hypothetical future, in a recent interview, a county staff member mentioned that she had conducted a "random asking" of some commissioners to gauge their opinions on the Community Assessment and Reintegration (CARE) program. She said the result of those conversations was the determination that there needed to more discussion of about whether the county should commit local tax dollars to fund the anti-recividism program. (See below.)

"The board can only act as a board and makes decisions as a board in an open meeting," Sonneman reminded the commissioners during the meeting, in response to Olson's concern.

Olson continued, commenting on the proposed language, "So you can have independent judgment if we say you can?"

The main concern with the administrator exercising too much independent judgment has to do with moving funds without the board's approval, Ward said in response to Olson. She specifically mentioning an incident in which a former county staff member authorized spending thousands to renovate the county government center without explicit board approval. "If something is $5,000 or more, yes, [the administrator] will have to come to the County Board," Ward said, referring to the board's policy of limiting staff expenditures not included in the budget.

Jacob asked Olson if he would be comfortable taking out the whole sentence about independent judgment. Olson said he was not.

"The one thing that concerns me, [is that] any applicant for this position would be able to Google this and find all this discussion we're having about independent judgment, and I would hate for this person to think that there are six administrators as opposed to five County Board members," Pomeroy stated. "I'm concerned that by removing [that sentence] we're going to micromanage, and I don't want to any part of micromanaging," he added. He also said that he wanted it to be clear to county staff that they answer to a single authority: the administrator, not individual board members.

Valentine said while he had championed removing the "independent judgment" phrase and making other changes to the job description, it was not because he wanted to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the county, but only because he wanted to be sure the board was getting accurate information from the administrator. Valentine advocated for including alternative language suggested by Interim County Administrator Maureen Holte: "Within the direction of the County Board, the County Administrator is authorized to exercise independent judgment in decision making."

"So that takes out the consultation," Ward observed.

"I think the key there was that we don't want Open Meeting Law violations," Pomeroy added.

The board informally settled on that phrasing and Valentine proposed other changes to ensure that the administrator provided board members with regular updates on county projects. The board will consider formally approving a final version of the administrator job description at its meeting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, August 5, on the second floor of the government center at 117 Main Street in Winona.

Board to vote on CARE program funding

It has saved Winona County thousands of days of housing citizens in jail, possibly many thousands of dollars, and is heralded an example of the success of preventive rather than punitive criminal justice. A recent staff report estimates that since the grant-funded CARE program began helping former inmates become working, tax-paying community members in 2009, former offenders have spent 12,500 fewer nights in jail. Based on estimates that a night in jail costs the county $88, the CARE program has saved the county over a million dollars since 2009, hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the roughly $620,000 in grant funds the program received.

However, the CARE program has also raised concerns about the transparency of county finances, after County Board members learned that staff planned to use local taxpayer dollars funds which had been officially budgeted for a different department but were earmarked by staff for the CARE program to continue the previously grant-funded program and after staff admitted that they did not know what line time the money was coming from.

The question of whether to contunue funding grant-initiated programs once the grant funding runs out is a frequent issue for county commissioners, and normal county policy is that board approval is needed to dedicate local tax dollars to continue a previously grant-funded position.

The County Board has also not received definite cost for continuing the program in 2015 would cost; one estimate called for over $200,000. On Tuesday, the board will be asked to approve continued funding to keep the program alive this fall until the results of a grant application are received. The proposal, which notes that "CARE program expenses run, at a minimum, between $6,000 to $6,500 per month" is included on the board's consent agenda. Consent agenda items are approved en masse unless a separate discussion and vote are specifically requested by board members. 


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