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County backs off plan to combine and appoint top positions

Though it wasn’t necessarily their opinion, the Becker County Board agreed not to combine the auditor-treasure and recorder positions and to leave them as elected positions.

After continuing public discussion from last month’s county board meeting on combining the two positions and having them appointed rather than elected, on Tuesday, the board listened to a room full of county residents and chose not to move forward with the process.

“The board feels this is the best option, but we’re not willing to go against the citizens,” Commissioner Barry Nelson said.

Commissioner Larry Knutson agreed with Nelson, saying he thought the county moved too quickly on the idea.

“You guys are here and we need to listen,” Commissioner John Okeson said.

Nelson said that Sen. Kent Eken was going to present the resolution allowing Becker County to have the option to combine offices and appoint someone, but Eken was pulling it until after the county board meeting.

Nelson said that he appreciated and respected the public’s input, “so don’t think this is a done deal. I will only support it if this is unanimous,” he told the audience at the start of the public hearing.

The county has been looking at combining the positions and making the new position an appointive one for a few reasons. Commissioners have said that it would be easier to find a qualified candidate if that person didn’t have to run for election every four years.

“This isn’t a part-time job. This is what you support your family on,” Commissioner Ben Grimsley said.

The county also needs someone qualified to manage a $52 million budget, and not just a recognizable name that got voted into office.

Nelson said that since the auditor-treasure also runs elections, some people see it as a conflict of interest when the auditor-treasure has to run for election.

But all those reasons didn’t mean a thing to those filling the commissioner’s room Tuesday morning.

Lester Ristinen read a resolution from the Republican Party of Becker County in support of keeping it an elected position, adding that there are talented people in Becker County who can hold this position.

County Surveyor Roy Smith said he was worked in surveying for 45 years and has worked with multiple county recorder offices. Becker County’s, he said, stands “head and shoulders above the rest.”

He discouraged combining the auditor-treasurer position and the recorder position because of the vast differences in duties between the departments.

“Even though they’re on the same floor … they are very different in what they do,” he said.

Nelson said he shared Smith’s concerns, as did Darlene Maneval, who holds the recorder position but is slated to retire soon.

“I know it’s a tough job to find good management,” Justin Klementson said. “Appointing is no way to go. As a veteran, I don’t want to lose my right to vote.”

Although considering the position to be appointed, the commissioners assured the audience members that it meant interviewing and hiring someone, and that they did not have anyone in mind they wanted to appoint.

Nelson said he would recommend that they hire an outside firm to find applicants, and then the commissioners, county staff and members of the public would be a part of the interview process. He said he would want the process as transparent as possible.

The only person in the audience to speak in favor of appointing the position was former commissioner Gerry Schram.

“We’ve been blessed with good auditor-treasurers, but we could have a popular name that would win,” he said, even if the person didn’t have the right qualifications or experience.

If the position was to stay elective, he said the county should attach some set qualifications for the person, like a college degree, similar to the sheriff’s position.

“Or you could end up with me,” he said with a laugh.

Clint Danielson asked commissioners whether or not the issue could be put to a vote of the people instead of the county board. Some of the commissioners agreed that that was a good idea.

Nelson asked former auditor Keith Brekken, who spoke in favor of keeping the position elective, what he suggested the county do in the meantime if the position stays elective.

Since former auditor-treasure Ryan Tangen resigned from the position to work with the Detroit Lakes School District, the deputy auditor-treasurer has been filling in.

Nelson asked if the board should fill the remainder of Tangen’s term (the rest of this year) with someone who is interested in running for election in November, or someone who isn’t interested.

“We’re going to be criticized no matter what way we go,” he said. “We’ll do it, but it’s going to be difficult.”

“We’ll take that chance and fall with you if you make the wrong choice,” Dave Knopf said.

The commissioners voted to take no action on the resolution to combine the auditor-treasure and recorder positions, and did not act to make it an appointed position instead of elective.

After the regular board meeting, the commissioners held a retreat and discussed the matter further. They directed County Administrator Jack Ingstad to start the process of advertising for the auditor-treasure position, after agreeing to hire someone for the remainder of the year.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.