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Planning for the future

WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County commissioners voted Tuesday to proceed with the search for an interim county administrator as board members continue to consult with department heads about the future of Nobles County government.

Board chairman David Benson said the Association of Minnesota Counties will be utilized as a resource as the county moves forward in a potential restructuring following last week's sudden retirement of Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert. Benson also suggested finding a retired county administrator or another experienced individual to fill the role temporarily.

The action was taken during what Commissioner Marv Zylstra coined a County Futures session -- a meeting with department heads to discuss the structure of administration.

Last week, Benson met with department heads to gather input on practices and policies in county government. That dialogue was encouraged to continue Monday, when Nobles County Attorney Kathleen Kusz gathered more department head input. She presented that information to the board on Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest decision facing the county board is the type of leader they want at the helm in the administration office.

Nobles County is among a majority of counties in the state that has a county administrator-led structure. The administrator has the authority to appoint, suspend and remove personnel.

Another option is to have a county coordinator, who would act more as a guide for the county board, with the board serving as the final authority on any action.

Approximately 30 counties in the state have a county coordinator rather than a county administrator position, including Jackson County.

Kusz said that because Nobles County has a county administrator role, altering the job to that of a county coordinator would require a referendum vote of the people.

"It sounds like people have moved from coordinator to administrator, but not that many have moved (from administrator to coordinator)," Kusz said.

In her talks with the department heads, she said they came to a consensus in that they want commissioners to "take things slow."

"We believe it would be wise if the county would hire an interim county administrator," she said on behalf of department heads. "We felt that would be a very good thing --to give everyone some breathing space."

Kusz also said the group recommends the coordinator model.

"The group discussed a desire to have the group work together as colleagues, rather than the hierarchy that was there before," she added. "The departments want to work more closely with the board --they don't like being restricted from speaking to the board."

Kusz said if the board creates another administrator position that allows for discipline of department heads, it will have a "chilling effect on people."

"Department heads have to be able to speak without fear that there will be repercussions behind the scenes," she added.

Commissioner Diane Thier expressed concern that the county would be taking a step backwards if it moved to the county coordinator model.

Kusz replied that the process is currently under way in Wabasha County, and said Ramsey County, one of the largest counties in the state in terms of population, doesn't have a county administrator, but rather uses a different model of government.

"One of the difficulties and concerns is that everyone on this board has only dealt with a county administrator - and one county administrator," Kusz said. "Individuals have an expectation of what that person did. With an interim, it would break that mold a little bit ... and lead to coming up with some new expectations."

If the county moves toward a county coordinator position, there are a couple of different scenarios they could pursue.

The first would be to have a referendum and put the option to a public vote. The second would be a board resolution to establish a group to study the administrator versus coordinator role. The group would be comprised of up to 15 individuals, including select county commissioners and county employees, appointed by Judge Gordon Moore.

With the second option, the study group would have a year to make a recommendation to the board, with the option to extend the study an additional year. Its recommendation would still need to be taken to a public vote.

Kusz said there is ample time to get the issue on a referendum for this year --the question could be on either the primary or general election ballot --if commissioners opted for that route. Delaying the referendum for a year would require a special election, at a cost of approximately $30,000.

Commissioners on Tuesday made no decision on where to from here, but it was made clear by at least three of them that they want to continue to work together and make Nobles County a better place to work.

"I really feel that we're moving in the right direction and looking forward to a Nobles County that will be better for people in general," said Benson.

"With redistricting, you are the folks that are still going to be here and working through this --we don't know if we'll be here," added Zylstra. "When we get all done, I want people to say, 'I'm from Nobles County --I'm Nobles County proud.' We're going to take it slow --we're going to take our time. We're going to take baby steps at first, but we're going to get there."

Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. said hiring an interim administrator is a "step in the right direction," adding that he also wants to take things slowly. He said he liked the coordinator model because of the transparency.

In other action, the board:

* Appointed Sheriff Kent Wilkening interim emergency management director. He will retain the title until a new emergency management director is hired.

* Discussed the potential duties of a full-time emergency management director, including serving as the county's safety officer, participating on the county's public health preparedness team and addressing nuisance complaints in the county.

The administrative committee, consisting of Benson and Demuth, will meet with deputy county administrator Sue Luing to finalize a job description.

* Was introduced to new Nobles County Assessor Joe Udermann.

* Authorized replacement of the administration office's credit card. The previous card was only authorized for the former county administrator.

* Made a change in board representation on the county-based purchasing committee. Zylstra will take Commissioner Vern Leistico's place on the committee because Leistico will not seek reelection to his board seat this fall.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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