County deliberates on leadership post
WORTHINGTON -- In the four months since Nobles County's former administrator, Mel Ruppert, stepped down from office, the seemingly slow and perhaps sometimes painful process of reopening the lines of communication and rebuilding trust has brought commissioners and department heads to the next step in re-establishing a leadership position.
In a meeting between county commissioners, a majority of the county's department heads and interim county administrator Vijay Sethi Tuesday afternoon, the group of 14 discussed the differences between a county coordinator versus a county administrator position and which would be best for Nobles County.
Nearly 50 counties in the state have a position of county administrator, while just 15 counties operate with a county coordinator. One of the main differences between the two roles is that a coordinator would be considered a department head, whereas the administrator would reign over departments.
If the county wants to switch from an administrator to a coordinator, the action would require a public vote. The coordinator role would also mean commissioners would be more heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of county business. Several individuals voiced a preference for maintaining the county administrator role.
"I don't have a recommendation one way or the other," Sethi told the group. "As an objective outside person who's been in both of the positions ... you need to separate the two.
"To me, the key here is to find the right person for the job," he added.
Having worked as the interim county administrator since late May, Sethi identified some specific skills the county should seek, whether it is with a coordinator or administrator. Those skills include: being able to work with employees in different departments; being an effective communicator, providing leadership with a willingness to listen and respect opinions; and having the ability to prepare and present reports, provide direction in labor negotiations and have administration skills.
"I would hope that whoever comes into this position has worked in local government," Sethi said.
Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Balster said she didn't care if the county hired a coordinator or administrator, but she was concerned about compensation for the position.
"The biggest problem that I want you to look at, if it is an administrator, is the contract," she said. "I cannot see how (paying someone to get rid of them) can be in the best interest of any taxpayer. I don't understand that kind of contract where you're going to pay someone to let him go. It makes no sense to me -- I hope we don't do that again."
Balster said the compensation paid to the last administrator was "way above" what other counties of similar size paid. She also spoke of perks that she didn't think should have been given. A Daily Globe story from August 2009 comparing administrator salaries and benefits reported the county paid $300 to the administrator every other week for use of his personal car for county business, even though county cars were available. the county also reimbursed the administrator $50 every other week for his cell phone, regardless of how many minutes were used.
Commissioner David Benson requested Tuesday that information be gathered on the salaries and perks paid to administrators in Minnesota counties of similar size. That information can then be used in determining the benefits package for the new position.
Joe Udermann, Nobles County Assessor, said he has worked for both coordinators and administrators and said it is the management style of the person coming in that matters most.
"I think having the management team involved in the hiring process is good," he said. "They need to be able to work with everyone here."
The timeline for filling the position was also discussed. Sethi is contracted through the end of this year, but with the November election certain to mean at least two new commissioners, there was some discussion about waiting for input from those individuals.
"I, personally, would like to see things move forward so, if possible, we could have someone in place by Jan. 1," said Commissioner Marv Zylstra.
Fellow Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. agreed, saying he didn't want to "put this on the new board."
Once the board commits to hiring a new administrator, more decisions will follow, including handling the hiring process in-house versus hiring a recruiting firm to help with the process. The latter will cost the county money, but they may see a larger pool of applicants for the job.
While Tuesday's meeting provided few answers and plenty of discussion, Benson said he was pleased with the input from the department heads on the management team. With additional information, he said he would like the board to be "ready to move" with a recommendation at the Sept. 4 board meeting.
"Now we have the opportunity to do this differently -- to do it better," Benson said.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.