Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday signed a bill into law allowing Crow Wing County to make two of its positions appointed rather than elected.
The bill, HF 916, gives the Crow Wing County Board authority to make the switch after following specific steps - safeguards built in to ensure the voting public supports the action. The board must first pass a resolution enabling the legislation, followed by a public hearing. A supermajority of the board must agree to pass the change, after which it cannot go into effect for 60 days to allow for the possibility of a voter petition. If 10 percent of the county's registered voters - 3,807 voters - sign a petition against the change, the issue will appear as a referendum on the next ballot.
Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, co-sponsored the bill in the House, where it passed 92-34 in a floor vote May 6. He described the legislation as updating a system that dated back to when Minnesota achieved statehood.
"If you think about it, we became a state in 1858, we basically laid out something that seemed make sense at that point in time, how we had all our county departments organized," he said. "We're kind of hostage to that many years later."
Lueck said he had "no idea" why fellow members of the House voted against the bill, although it could be due to partisan stubbornness.
"You have the people who are going to vote against anything a Republican does," he said. "And then, some may have decided that they wanted to force Crow Wing County to stick by an 1858 plan."
The bill had bipartisan support and opposition in the House as well as in the Senate. It passed the Senate 45-21 in a vote May 12.
Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, were also listed as authors on the bill.
The bill becoming law means Crow Wing joins a growing number of Minnesota counties that have pushed for similar changes to state regulations, Lueck said.
"The vast majority of counties out there have already done something like this," Lueck said. "It's called moving along with the times."
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle said 33 counties, representing 75 percent of the state's population, have changed one or both posts to appointed positions.
Houle requested the county board act on the issue in January, setting in motion a process that Houle says will save the county $250,000 of the taxpayer's money and improve customer service.
"You've got to go to multiple offices to get something done in Crow Wing County, and it's because, historically, we have carved job descriptions into the stone of statute," Houle said. "As a result of that it makes for a poor customer service experience, and I don't think the public appreciates the fact that we have to send them on wild goose chases to get simple transactions done. In addition to that, it is not very efficient when we have to have that kind of duplication of effort."
The current structure of county government is organized around statutorily required duties assigned to the elected offices. Effectively, this separates duties related to land among four areas of county government: the recorder's office, which records deeds; the auditor-treasurer's office, which maintains the property tax system; the property valuation and classification office, which values properties for taxation purposes; and environmental services, which issues permits for improving properties.
Houle's proposal to streamline services would move all land-related processes to a land services customer service counter. The accounting and finance division and elections responsibilities of the auditor-treasurer would be moved to a newly formed department called internal services. This would downsize the number of departments within the county to four: community services, land services, transportation services and internal services.
Reorganizing in this manner, however, will require uncoupling the recorder's and auditor-treasurer's offices from the statutory requirements associated with the posts' elective nature. The duties required by statute would still be performed by the county, Houle said, but the board would have flexibility with whom is tasked with performing them. This would mean eliminating the titles of recorder and auditor-treasurer.
Both Auditor-Treasurer Deborah Erickson and Recorder Mark Liedl, who were each elected to their terms in the 2014, expressed support for the change.
"I'm glad that it has worked through the legislative process," Erickson said. "At this point now the county board still has decisions they need to make as far as whether and how they choose to enact that legislation. From my own personal perspective, I think it gives us now a great ability to look at our service delivery model and make sure that we are aligning ourselves in a way that our customers best need."
Liedl said he appreciates the tax savings and increased efficiency that could come with the change and his experiences campaigning for the post made clear many voters don't have strong feelings on the matter.
"I think that's one reason why the incumbents in these offices tend to serve as long as they want to, because people don't really know what they do," Liedl said. "These are not law making positions. ... That's what the role of the county board is, it's elected by the people of the county."