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Time to combine?

Look for a Becker County Board vote in two weeks on whether the county auditor and county treasurer jobs should be combined and the new position put on the ballot in November.

Because of legal deadline pressures, the board must act on such a resolution by March 28, according to board chairwoman Karen Mulari.

"The committee met for several hours and had a good discussion on combining this," said county administrator Brian Berg. Commissioners were especially interested in feedback from two township officials on the committee -- Justin Klementson, chairman of the county township association, and Art Yliniemi, vice chairman of the association.

"One came in very much in support of combining (offices)," said Berg, "the other reserved comment or opinion until we discussed it. After we discussed it, he was trying to talk us into it, I think," Berg said with a laugh.

Becker County Auditor Keith Brekken, who sits on the committee, plans to retire at the end of this year. To be consistent with his past position, he must oppose consolidation, he said, but he nevertheless told the committee that he sees many benefits to it at this time.

Other committee members include County Attorney Joe Evans, there to provide legal advice, Mulari, Berg, Commissioner Barry Nelson and County Treasurer Ryan Tangen, who supports the merger.

The committee met Friday to look at the pros and cons of such a merger, and came out in favor of recommending that the county board make the switch.

"We always say timing is everything," Berg said. "With Keith not running again and one incumbent (Tangen) up for election, the time may be right for combining them. It was a real positive meeting, and there was fairly strong feedback that now is the time for doing it."

Commissioner Harry Salminen said he is in favor of combining the offices, as 53 of the state's 87 counties have already done.

"I do not have a problem with Ryan (Tangen) being auditor-treasurer," he said. "My concern would be, Ryan is not absolutely assured of re-reelection, we could get somebody in there who is popular but doesn't know diddly about finance ... history has indicated that that has happened ... then you've got a problem."

He would prefer to see the position appointed by the board, rather than elected, but other commissioners said that's not a politically feasible move at this time.

"I think we can trust the voters -- they know the importance of the office," Nelson said.

Besides, by keeping separate elected positions "you could end up with two unqualified people," noted Commissioner Bob Bristlin, who thanked the committee for its work and said it has given him the information he needs to vote on the matter.

"If you're (an) elected (department head), you don't have to listen to us at all," Salminen said. "But you're not going to find two people who aren't going got work with you." They would likely balance each other out, he said.

"We are fortunate to have an auditor and treasurer who work well together," Nelson said. "I know one county where they shut the door and won't talk to each other."

Improvement in government services is usually taken in small steps, said Commissioner Larry Knutson. "This is a step we need to take in that direction."

The county board has the authority to consolidate the positions, though the action must be approved by at least 80 percent of commissioners (a 4-1 or 5-0 vote, in other words) and the position must remain elected, Berg said earlier.

The board action could be put to a public "reverse referendum" if 10 percent or more of county voters in the last election sign a petition asking for that.

The board does not have authority to make the position appointive. That requires special legislative permission or a referendum vote, Berg said.