Becker County moves ahead with plans to make county recorder position appointed rather than elected
The deputy recorder, who has worked in the Becker County Recorder’s Office for 31 years, said she shared with her staff Wednesday that she plans to retire in February.
From now on, the Becker County recorder position will be appointed rather than elected, following a 4-1 vote of the Becker County Board at a special meeting on Wednesday.
It was the second time the board voted on the proposed change, which requires a yes vote from four of the five commissioners.
The prior vote on Nov. 17 included a remote vote from Commissioner Ben Grimsley, and Commissioner Richard Vareberg was not able to attend that meeting and did not vote.
This time, all five commissioners were present at the courthouse. “This requires a four-fifths majority of the board,” said Board Chairman Barry Nelson. “We want to make sure we cover all the bases and that all five commissioners are present.”
Grimsley joined Nelson and commissioners Larry Knutson and John Okeson in voting yes to pass the resolution.
Commissioner Richard Vareberg voted no, saying he had been on the fence about it, but opted to vote no after several long phone conversations with constituents concerned about the change.
“I see both sides of it, but after these phone calls I will have a hard time supporting it,” Vareberg said before the vote.
Grimsley said he had received the opposite reaction from the public, and had talked to several people who were in favor of the change. “I heard from several people who supported it, who like the idea,” he said.
Nelson noted that he had talked to constituents about other issues, but nobody had contacted him about the proposal to make the recorder position appointive rather than elective. “But in the past, comments have been supportive,” he added.
The position opened up with the Oct. 17 death of County Recorder Patty Swenson, 51, who worked in the Becker County Zoning Office for over 20 years and was first elected Becker County Recorder in 2014.
The main reason commissioners wanted to make the change is to ensure a qualified person holds the office. Unlike the sheriff and county attorney, no professional credentials are required to run for county recorder. Swenson was well-qualified because of her background, but there is no guarantee her elected successor would be, Nelson said.
Clint Danielson, who lives north of Detroit Lakes in the Spring Lake area, was again the only one to show up at the public hearing on Tuesday.
Since the new recorder would be hired based on qualifications, he wondered who would set those qualifications.
Nelson responded that the county’s human resources department would write the job description, and an experienced county recorder from outside the county will sit in on applicant interviews.
“We’re looking for an outside person who really knows the requirements of the office,” Nelson said. Once hired, the recorder will needed to be reappointed on a regular basis, likely every four years, he added.
“We owe Karen (Deputy Recorder Karen Wenner) a huge debt of gratitude for stepping up and filling the shoes during this interim time,” Nelson added.
Wenner said she was granted authority to sign off on documents for the county, but is not considered the acting county recorder, in part because the position needs to be vacant to make the switch.
Nelson said the board may consider additional compensation for Wenner at a future meeting.
Wenner, who has worked in the Becker County Recorder’s Office for 31 years, said she shared with her staff Wednesday that she plans to retire in February. She didn’t have much to say about the plan to switch to an appointed county recorder other than that there are “pros and cons both ways.”
Swenson’s salary in 2021 was $76,564, but the salary of whoever is appointed to replace her may be different.
The new salary will be based partly on the past pay of the county recorder and partly on other factors, such as how much other Minnesota counties are paying their appointed recorders, Nelson said. The board’s Finance Committee will set the band and grade for the appointed recorder position.
Of course, there’s always the chance that a reverse referendum will negate the board’s decision and keep the county recorder elected.
The state law that grants commissioners the right to make the switch also gives the public the chance to reverse that decision.
The public has 30 days from the time of the county board's decision (the original vote was Nov. 16) to file for a reverse referendum to keep the position elected.
That would require a petition signed by over 1,950 county residents — the actual number of petition-signers is calculated based on 10% of the number of county residents that voted in the last election.
There were 19,511 ballots cast in Becker County in the 2020 general election, an impressive 91% turnout of the 21,397 registered county voters.
The main job of the County Recorder is to accept and maintain a permanent public repository of real estate records, according to the Minnesota Association of County Officers.
“Types of documents in the repository include deeds, mortgages, contracts for deed, mortgage satisfactions, foreclosure records, probate documents, and easements. In Minnesota there are two systems of public real estate records, Abstract and Torrens,” the association explained on its website.