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Crow Wing County Board: No referendum on auditor-treasurer, recorder changes

A thick stack of papers bearing the signatures of 2,414 concerned county residents was what motivated Ron Brusven of Brainerd to address the Crow Wing County Board during open forum Tuesday.

A thick stack of papers bearing the signatures of 2,414 concerned county residents was what motivated Ron Brusven of Brainerd to address the Crow Wing County Board during open forum Tuesday.

Among those signatures, Brusven told the board, were a near-centenarian, who was 4 years old when women first gained the right to vote, and an area state legislator. Despite falling about 1,400 signatures shy of the required 10 percent of the county's registered voters, Brusven asked the county board to reconsider its June decision to convert the county auditor-treasurer and recorder positions from elected to appointed posts.

"Today I respectfully request on behalf of these 2,414 people that signed this, because they are here in spirit today, that you reconsider this and reverse your decision you made two months ago," Brusven said.

The petition would have forced a voter referendum this November on the county board's decision. The county board approved the conversion with a resolution in June, a move recommended by County Administrator Tim Houle as part of an overhaul of the structure of county government.

State law requires a specific procedure be followed when county governments pursue this type of change to structure, beginning with a bill passed through the state Legislature and signed by the governor allowing the county to move forward. Then a supermajority of the county board, or four out of five commissioners, must approve the change after a public hearing. The next phase is a 60-day waiting period during which residents have the opportunity to petition the board's actions.

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Those 60 days - which actually was 62 days in this case due to the weekend - were up at 5 p.m. Monday. Without a valid petition, the county is free to move forward with its reorganization.

The reorganization will move all land-related processes - currently split among four areas of county government - to a centralized customer services counter. The accounting and finance division and elections responsibilities of the auditor-treasurer will be moved to a newly formed department called administrative services. This would downsize the number of departments within the county to four: community services, land services, transportation services and administrative services.

Reorganizing in this manner will require uncoupling the recorder's and auditor-treasurer's offices from the statutory requirements associated with the posts' elective nature, a move 33 other Minnesota counties - representing 75 percent of the state's population - have undertaken.

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 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.

The duties required by statute would still be performed by the county, Houle has stated, but the board would have flexibility concerning whom is tasked with performing them. This would mean eliminating the titles of auditor-treasurer and recorder.

Deborah Erickson, auditor-treasurer, and Mark Liedl, recorder, who were each elected in 2014, have previously expressed support for the change.

Brusven told the county board he believed more signatures would have been collected, but some people - including county employees and contractors - expressed fear of retribution for expressing an opinion opposite the county board's.

"They said they really wanted to sign the petition, but they were afraid if the wrong people would see their name on there, that they'd probably lose their job," Brusven said.

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Chairman Paul Koering thanked Brusven for his comments but there was no indication from the four present commissioners the board intends to reconsider the issue. Houle said earlier this month he expects the reorganization to move forward as part of the 2016 budget discussion. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom was not present.

Ruud signs petition

The state legislator Brusven cited as a petition supporter is Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who despite being an author of the Senate version of the bill allowing the county's conversion process to go ahead said she opposed the move from the start. Ruud confirmed Tuesday she was a signatory to the petition.

"The county board is elected by my constituents also, so while I told them that I didn't personally support it, it's my job to - when they pass a resolution and that's something that they want to do - it's my job to represent them, too," Ruud said.

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" At least everybody had the opportunity to have a voice in this and that's what the process is all about." - Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point.

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The state Legislature's website notes Ruud's authorship of S.F. 753 is "by request," which Ruud said implies she's not necessarily in personal support of the issue.

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"I think it's very serious to take away the people's right to vote because they will never get it back," Ruud said. "I know that they say that they are doing it for efficiency and cost-wise, but for me, there isn't a dollar amount to put on somebody's right to vote."

Ruud added before she assumed office for the second time in 2013, in her capacity as a realtor she worked closely with former County Recorder Kathy Ludenia on legislation pertaining to timeshare foreclosures. The legislation successfully passed, although Ruud said the outcome might have been different without the autonomy Ludenia enjoyed as an elected official. According to Ruud, when Ludenia presented on the legislation to the county board, at least one county commissioner expressed concern about not having been informed on the issue earlier.

"It wasn't his conversation to have, it was the recorder's," Ruud said. "If she was an employee, we may have had a different outcome than if she was an elected official doing her job."

Ruud said she would support legislation that would do away with requiring bills each time a county wishes to make a change like Crow Wing County's, instead instituting a process to allow all counties to pursue structural changes of this kind.

Either way, there is a process in place, she said, so even though the petition failed, voters had the opportunity to be heard.

"At least everybody had the opportunity to have a voice in this and that's what the process is all about," Ruud said.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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