Sparks flew a little bit when several former Becker County commissioners went to the County Board meeting Tuesday to say their goodbyes to County Administrator Mike Brethorst, whose last day with the county is Friday.
Don Skarie served on the board from 2010 to 2020, when he lost to new commissioner Richard Vareberg. During the open forum portion of the meeting, Skarie said people were left with the impression that Brethorst had been fired, and many believe he should not have been given severance pay as part of his separation agreement with the county.
“People shouldn’t be thinking he got fired — it’s not fair,” Skarie told commissioners. “I just think what happened here is absolutely crazy — you four guys (commissioners Larry Knutson, Ben Grimsley, John Okeson and Barry Nelson) voted on a severance agreement and the other one (Commissioner Richard Vareberg) blew it up.”
Skarie said Brethorst had done well as administrator during Skarie’s time on the board. “You've been a great administrator,” he told Brethorst. “I’ll miss you — the county will miss you.”
Skarie said that the Detroit Lakes Tribune headline: “Mike Brethorst is out as Becker County administrator,” made it look like he had been forced out, rather than opting out on his own terms.
“The headline made it look like he got fired,” Skarie said. “The story was fine, but the headline was bad.”
The reasons for Brethorst leaving were not made public, but Nelson said Tuesday that “Mike was not fired.”
The county board voted 4-1 at a special meeting Sept. 16 to approve a “separation agreement and release of claims” with Brethorst that includes $45,000 in lump-sum severance pay.
"After 20 years of public service, I have opted to join the private sector and I thank the county for honoring my request to separate from my employment agreement," Brethorst said in a statement. He was hired in January 2019 to replace Jack Ingstad, who retired.
Vareberg was the only commissioner to vote against the agreement, and said at the Sept. 16 meeting that he was against paying severance. “I don’t like paying people for doing a bad job,” he said. “I usually just send them home.”
That was an irresponsible thing to say, Skarie said, and it contributed to the incorrect public perception that Brethorst had been fired. “There’s different ways to handle this,” he told Vareberg. “Blowing this up is wrong, and it’s hard to fix.”
For his part, Vareberg told Skarie that “if you don’t have all the information, you shouldn’t say anything ... I’ve had a lot of problems with this guy since I first got here — we didn’t see eye to eye.”
At that point, Board Chairman Barry Nelson reminded Vareberg that commissioners shouldn’t be talking publicly about the separation agreement.
“The reason we are tight-lipped is to protect Becker County,” Nelson said earlier in the meeting. “I don’t think there’s anything Mike would come back at us for, but we have to protect his privacy.”
Former Commissioner Roger Winter also spoke, but took a different approach, thanking Brethorst for helping townships apply for federal American Rescue Plan money.
“Michael is the man for this thing with Becker County,” Winter said.
At its regular meeting Sept. 21, the county board agreed to use a short-term leadership team to fill in until a new administrator is hired.
On Tuesday, the board announced the members of that leadership team: Human Services Director Denise Warren, Chief Deputy Shane Richard, Highway Engineer Jim Olson, Environmental Services Director Steve Skoog, and Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson. Human Resources Director Amy Rissmann is also involved.
In general, responsibilities will be divided among team members based on their area of expertise, Nelson said.