by CHRIS ROGERS

After hours of interviews with six finalists on Thursday, the Winona County Board did not come to a final decision on whom to hire as the next county administrator, but two are still in the running: a former city manager in Kentucky, David Johnston, and a county human services supervisor in Colorado, Samuel Landercasper. After initially hitting an impasse, board members hope that a few followup questions with the leading candidates might get them to a unanimous hiring decision. Alternatively, the board also raised the prospect of turning down all candidates and reposting the job later in the spring.

The county administrator is the top staff position for the county, a post often likened to CEO. It is the one staff position that answers directly to the elected board, and the administrator is charged with overseeing the county’s over $60 million budget and over 280 employees. 

Johnston served as city manager for Covington, Ky., for four years before resigning last summer. He previously worked as the city manager for Maple Valley, Wash., for seven years, and as village administrator for Rantoul, Ill., for four years, and he has a master’s degree in public affairs.

“He was the most experienced of anyone up there,” County Board member Steve Jacob said of Johnston. County Board member Greg Olson echoed, “On experience, education, interview — he was one of my top picks.”

Landercasper works for Pitkin County in Aspen, Colo., as an economic assistance manager, a role he’s held for the past five years. Before that, he worked for three years for Eagle County, Colo., as a quality assurance specialist and economic services specialist. He holds a master’s degree in public management.

Olson and County Board member Chris Meyer said they ranked Landercasper highly in their own reviews. Jacob said, “Clearly his strongest background is in health and human services. That’s the biggest part of our budget.” There might be a learning curve for other areas of county government, but if Landercasper already has a grip on one of the most complex departments, he can learn the rest, Jacob said.

On the other hand, Olson, Meyer, and Kovecsi had some hesitations about Landercasper’s level of experience. “My biggest concern is that he hasn’t run an organization with hundreds of employees. He runs an organization with 20 employees and six of them are direct reports,” Meyer said.

Regarding Johnston, Ward was concerned about the fact Johnston had resigned from three of his previous positions. “Do we want someone here for a couple years or for a long time?” Ward asked. According to a biography provided by the county’s recruiting firm, all of Johnston’s appointments as a local government head lasted four years or more. Johnston mentioned the reason for one resignation in his interview: conflict with village board members over rental inspections of board members’ relatives’ properties. 

Most County Board members felt strongly they should make a unanimous decision about whom to hire. However, the commissioners weren’t able to reach that perfect agreement, as Kovecsi couldn’t get behind Landercasper, nor Ward behind Johnston. Jacob said a unanimous decision wasn’t absolutely necessary, noting that former county administrator Ken Fritz, who retired last month, was hired on a 4-1 vote.

Olson raised the prospect of not hiring anyone, but reposting the job and trying again in the spring. “The other times I’ve been through this process, there is someone that is clearly consistently rated the highest … This time I’m not seeing it,” he said. Olson added, “It’s odd because some of my tops are other people’s last [picks].”

“The odds of getting all these community panels and department heads on the same page with all our different political backgrounds are slim to none,” Jacob responded. The finalists sat for interviews with the County Board, a panel of community members selected by the board, and a panel of county department heads. With six qualified finalists, he added, “I think we’d be foolish to not take one of these candidates.”

Pat Melvin, a recruiting consultant with David Drown Associates, advised the board, “We can repost in six months, but I can’t guarantee that you’re going to have a different outcome, but I also don’t want you to make a decision that you’re not comfortable making.”

The County Board voted 3-2, with Olson and Ward dissenting, to ask Johnston and Landercasper followup questions before making a decision. The board is slated to get an update and discuss the issue again on Tuesday.

Chris@winonapost.com