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Crow Wing County Board vote to change offices from elected to appointed

Crow Wing County Board members Tuesday all agreed to change two long-time elected positions into appointed ones. The resolution to reorganize county government came after a public hearing where a handful of people spoke in opposition. The board v...

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Crow Wing County Board members voted to reorganize county government and appoint auditor-treasurer instead of electing those positions. Voters have an option for a reverse referendum petition, barring that the change could take effect as early as 2016. The current incumbents' terms expire in 2018. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch

Crow Wing County Board members Tuesday all agreed to change two long-time elected positions into appointed ones.

The resolution to reorganize county government came after a public hearing where a handful of people spoke in opposition. The board voted to make the offices of auditor-treasurer and recorder appointed instead of elected posts. In addition, the board voted to create an administrative services department and reassign land-related functions from their existing departments to land services.

The resolution offered a timeline of taking effect upon completion of the term of office. Both elected positions for Deborah Erickson, auditor-treasurer, and Mark Liedl, recorder, have terms that continue to 2018.

Tim Houle, county administrator, said this is the last significant restructuring for county government, which has been consolidating departments for a number of years. Houle said the goal is to have one stop for people rather than multiple stops at multiple offices to complete their business. One of his examples included an older man whose wife passed away and his need to remove her name from the deed. Houle said it meant sending the man, who was using a walker, to multiple offices. Another example had six stops in three different offices to purchase tax-forfeited property that didn't sell at public auction. Houle said the county was reorganizing to improve the customer experience. He noted it comes as a trade-off because while the reasons are there, it means eliminating two elected offices.

"So it's not something you should entertain lightly," Houle said, adding the right to vote is a sacred right.

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The change would give the county board the authority to move functions between offices. Houle said there are still statutory duties the county is required to perform and those would become the duties of the elected county board. The county board sought and obtained Legislative approval for the move. Houle said the move would improve service and offer more consistent, coordinated management and save a conservative estimate of $250,000 a year. Houle said he thinks the savings may really be closer to $400,000 a year but time is needed to make sure the reorganization will occur and to see what will happen in the process.

Unlike the county attorney or sheriff, Houle said the auditor-treasurer and recorder offices are more ministerial.

"Should we be electing those who are steering the boat or should we be electing those who are rowing the boat," Houle said.

He said 33 counties in the state have already made this transition and none of them have gone back to the elected offices. He said five more counties made this transition just this last year.

Voters have the option of a petition for a reverse referendum. Houle said a petition would have the rest of June, July and August for time. And if residents didn't take that route, the county could then spend the time between September and December reorganizing with the option of making the change by January of 2016 in the middle of the current elected terms.

When the board turned the microphone over to public comments, a handful of people spoke.

"I do not have a silver tongue like Mr. Houle," said Laureen Borden, who served 28 years as treasurer and auditor-treasurer before her retirement in 2014. Borden said Houle gave some good points but many changes using technology were already simplifying the process for residents. Borden said she valued the fact she was elected and felt she was put in office by the people. This change would take away the freedom of choice voters exercise every four years, Borden said. She added wages for the auditor-treasurer and recorder were the lowest of other department heads in part, she thought, because they were female and because they felt they were working for the people and keeping costs down. Crow Wing County doesn't have to be like all the other counties, Borden said, instead the county could do better.

A Baxter resident who spoke said he was not in favor of having his right to vote taken away. Daryl Bahma and Jan Burton said the offices should remain elected. Another speaker, Ron Brusven, a former county employee in community services, said he had a hard time understanding why some elected officials felt they were more important than other elected officials. He said the county's reorganization in community services for a one stop experience had created a holding pen on the first floor and an intake area that has people waiting in line for service. Brusven said it's impossible to cross train everyone to have in-depth understanding for each area.

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"I'm absolutely opposed to your taking my vote away," he said. Commissioner Paul Thiede pointed to awards the county has received and questioned if Brusven's evaluation is from his work experience years ago compared to what is there today. Brusven said he's seen the change as a customer as he adopted three grandchildren. Brusven said the county may be saving money but it isn't saving people. Brusven also pointed to what he said were overwhelmed staff members who come in to work on Sundays to get caught up and who are being judged on data entry to look good for the state.

Chairman Paul Koering said his blood boils when he hears people say all the county workers hate working there and nothing could be further from the truth as workers say they love their jobs and the county is a great place to work. Koering said he's changed his mind from his days in the state senate and now believes in appointing the posts.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom pointed to the the last five years of not raising the levy and following what people want as they tell the board to keep costs down. To do that takes creativity and work, she said. Nystrom said this change is saving money and making things better for customers.

Erickson attended the meeting but offered no comment during the hearing. Both Erickson and Liedl said they supported the move when they ran for office. Liedl did not attend the meeting.

Thiede said as the longest serving board member he was in favor and much has changed in government since the offices were established as elected positions. Those needs for separation of powers are different today, Thiede said.

And Thiede said, elected officials can pay a price for their decisions and if any of the current board decides to run for office, they could face not being reelected on that basis. The board unanimously approved changing from elected to appointed for the two posts.

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz .

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTY
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