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Too much power for one person?

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During its June 3 meeting, the St. Croix County Board postponed until October a decision on switching from a county administrator form of government that some feel gives too much authority to one employee.

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New supervisors elected in April haven’t had the chance to see how this system works, and even returning supervisors have had only a couple of years, said Supervisor David Peterson of rural River Falls. He suggested observing the process and postponing a decision until April 2015 – one year after a major turnover in board membership.

Peterson said that would give new supervisors time to evaluate the position and the entire board time to consider tweaking the administrator’s role.

The former position of administrative coordinator was difficult to work with, said Supervisor Bill Peavey of Woodville, who has been on the board for over 10 years. He felt a year’s experience would give all board members a good chance to see how the new system works.

“After everybody serves a year, we could revisit this,” Peavey said.

The county operated with an administrative coordinator, a position with less authority, for decades before converting to the administrator system and hiring Pat Thompson in June 2011.

Creation of that position was among the hot-button issues in the April elections when five incumbents were defeated and 10 new members were elected to the 19-member board. Other issues included operation of the nursing home, sale of county-owned land in New Richmond, employee wage decisions and the possibility of selling or moving the Agriculture and Education Center in Baldwin.

The new members, some of whom defeated long-term incumbents, earned votes by supporting particular issues, including a change in county governance, said Supervisor Ron Kiesler of New Richmond.

He asked if those new supervisors believe they were elected to change the system or to study it.

“It was very clear what the voters in my district wanted,” said Supervisor Howard Novotny of North Hudson, who defeated Daryl Standafer, a 20-year board veteran and its chairman at the time of the election.

“I’m not willing to give up any activity on this for a year,” Novotny said.

There are now only four supervisors who have worked with a coordinator, said Vice Chairman Dave Ostness. He called that system “a nightmare” and warned that if they revert to the coordinator system, supervisors will be spending a lot more time on county business. He suggested taking a few months for consideration.

‘A tighter leash’

Kiesler, another of the veteran board members, said he is interested in changing the system but feels a middle ground is needed.

He suggested “an administrator with a tighter leash” or an administrative coordinator with more authority. Kiesler also suggested a system under which department heads don’t report to committee chairmen but the administrator doesn’t have the ability to fire other employees.

Peterson asked his fellow supervisors to consider a letter from Chuck Whiting, who was St. Croix County’s administrative coordinator for over 10 years and is now the administrator in Polk County, Minn.

Whiting believes the administrator form of government, in either state, is “more suitable to the demands of contemporary local government.”

He wrote, “Everyone believes in accountability and looks for efficiency in their government. A coordinator can do neither, at least not well or with serious limitations on the ability to lead, hold firm during difficult times or do the right thing in the limited time a circumstance provides.

“I found as a coordinator, I was often confronted with a choice, advocate for an action or position I knew was right, legal and responsible and hope any number of committees, employees and the board follow through, or wait until I could take a position that would influence the outcome. Either way, more energy was spent on strategizing how to get the right action done than simply performing the correct and proper administrative function. It was hard to be accountable for an action I did not have control over and there was nothing efficient about the tortuous journey to a decision, assuming there was a decision.”

Whiting said it’s the board’s role to determine policy direction and the administrator’s job is to assure those directions are followed.

“No administrator or coordinator can fully rectify political differences in policy the board confronts, such as the future of the nursing home, smart growth ordinances or collective bargaining stratagems,” wrote Whiting, advising that, given time, the administrator form of government will work.

The position of administrator is a change, said Supervisor Judy Achterhof of Emerald, who is among the new board members.

“We’ve got to give it an opportunity,” she said. “We can tweak it.”

The former board studied the change for two years, and the current board needs to give it more time, she said.

“We have got to give it a chance, and I don’t think two years under one board is enough of a chance,” concluded Achterhof.

During their first two meetings, some Administration Committee members accused Thompson of taking action unilaterally, but that’s not true, said Supervisor Stephen Nielsen of Hudson, another new board member. He said no proof was offered that Thompson didn’t do what the old board wanted done.

Two years ago the board voted unanimously for the change, Nielsen said, adding that if supervisors feel the administrator has failed, there is process to terminate him.

An injustice, chaos?

If the change goes forward, it will be an injustice for Thompson and will mean chaos in county government, Nielsen said.

In response to the implication that the new members might not know enough about operations to make this decision, Supervisor Jill Berke of the Town of Troy said many of them have been following county government for some time.

“It isn’t something we decided in April: Bong, I got elected,” Berke said.

“I wouldn’t underestimate our knowledge of what’s been going on,” agreed Supervisor Scott Nelson of the Town of Hudson.

“We are voting board members now,” said Supervisor Chris Babbitt of Hudson, adding that they need to base their votes on what they know.

“I think we absolutely should have dialogue,” said Agnes Ring of Houlton, a second-term supervisor. She suggested taking time to identify what changes should be made and how that should be done.

“I’ve been around 27 years,” said Kiesler, who worked in St. Croix County Health and Human Services before taking a job in Pierce County. The county had an administrative coordinator for 20 years and was very effective for much of that time, he said.

“It’s not about the person,” Kiesler said. “It’s about the form of governance.”

He said the question is “How much power do we want in one person’s hands?”

Kiesler added, “It’s not black and white. There is a middle ground there.”

Former supervisor Buck Malick, speaking now as a citizen, suggested postponing action and using “the time wisely to put in the controls you want.”

In the meantime, Malick suggested giving Thompson clear direction. If supervisors agree on what they want to control, he’s sure Thompson will follow their direction, Malick said.

“The employees of St. Croix County are unhappy,” commented Norman Matzek, a Hudson resident. He said morale is very low now with employees perceiving that there is unequal treatment between workers and those in the “executive suite.”

Berke’s motion to amend the resolution to postpone a decision until October carried, and the amended motion was adopted on a 12-6 vote.

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Judy Wiff
Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.
(715) 426-1049
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