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Jack Ingstad gets offer from county

Jack Ingstad was the best of three very good finalists for the county administrator position. He was recruited by an executive search firm. Submitted Photo

Becker County commissioners have offered the county administrator's position to Jack Ingstad, who served in the role in good times and bad in Colorado and California, worked as an attorney and TV journalist in North Dakota, and served in the North Dakota State Legislature.

Becker County commissioners decided to offer the job to Ingstad after interviewing him and two other finalists on Thursday.

"He is excited (about the offer) and looking forward to the next step," said Becker County Human Resources Director Nancy Grabanski.

Ingstad will next meet with a county committee to work out a salary and benefits package. He agreed in principle to accept a salary within the county's salary range for the position, roughly between $77,000 and $107,000.

His current salary as chief administrative officer for Plumas County, Calif., is higher than that, so he will likely be hired towards the top of the salary range.

All three candidates -- Ingstad, Tom Johnson and Larry Kruse -- did well in the final interview process. They handled comprehensive written and oral presentations, and fielded a series of questions from commissioners and the moderator -- Dave Unmacht, senior vice president of Springsted Consulting, the head-hunting firm that handled the recruiting process for the county.

Kruse did the best job with the written presentation, but could not overcome the disadvantage of having worked only in city government.

"He just came up against two top-notch candidates," said Commissioner Barry Nelson, in the discussion that followed the interview process.

"That's exactly what happened," agreed Board Chairman Larry Knutson.

The second-place candidate, Tom Johnson, impressed several of the commissioners with an easy-going, professional interview style.

Johnson is managing director of the public works department in Eagle County, Colo., and spent much of his career with the management team at Rosemount, Inc., in Chanhassen.

But he lacks the extensive experience in leading county government that Ingstad has, and he didn't click nearly as well with department heads, who were impressed with Ingstad.

Ingstad has been through the extremes of good times and bad times in county government.

He was the top county administrator at Eagle County, Colo., for 12 years. During that time, Eagle County was named "The Best Run County," according to the City-County Communications and Marketing Association.

He managed the Eagle County Regional Airport and the addition of a new passenger terminal, a major runway extension and an airport control tower. His lobbying efforts with the FAA led to the installation of a new airport radar system.  Ingstad was responsible for all financial matters related to the airport including long term bonds, lease negotiations with seven commercial airlines and six rental car companies.

He also oversaw a national image campaign for the county and the airport. Those campaigns won the county and its staff many national and state marketing awards. Today that airport is the second busiest commercial airport in Colorado.

But Ingstad went through the mill at his next job, as chief administrative officer for Plumas County, Calif. The boom times in that area collapsed along with the recession and financial meltdown of 2007-08.

With the county budget in freefall and no additional revenues available, Ingstad eventually oversaw the layoff of some 160 county employees. He and the county human resources manager broke the news to each of them in person.

The stress took its toll, but Ingstad managed to preserve critical services and left the county with a sound budget and improved bond rating.

Things are turning around in some parts of California, but Plumas County faces another $3 million in cuts in the upcoming budget and will likely have to start laying off deputies and other critical staff, he said.

Asked what he is looking for in his career at this point, he said. "I want an organization that is going somewhere, that knows what they want and can give me a list of priorities ... I'm looking for a job where I'm excited to come to work, and the people I work with value what I do."

Some excerpts from his interview:

• "You can't force people to follow you. They decide to do that because of what they're picking up ... (it's about) being open, honest and being competent. If they follow my direction and then get in trouble from the board, they're not going to trust me anymore."

• Ingstad always knows where his county is at with revenues, expenditures and surpluses. "I pay attention to our finances. If the finances go south, the organization goes south."

• "Fear really kills improvements in an organization. The board is critical for setting the tone of the workplace. It's hard for elected officials to remember that sometimes. Your focus is out with your constituents, as it should be, but you also have a tremendous impact on the people that work for you."

• "We have to make sure that when we do top-down (decision-making) that there's an opportunity for feedback to come back up, so it can be refined."

• As the county goes through a major process, like updating its strategic plan, it's important to "be very transparent, open to the media, to community members and also open to the board -- so commissioners understand where all the feedback is coming from and how the process is going. Sometimes people forget to keep the board in the loop -- I think that's really important."

"I like an open-door policy (for employees, the public and commissioners). I don't like a lot of meetings unless they're important."