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Facilitator to help county heal

WORTHINGTON -- Moving forward.

The phrase has been used a lot lately in Nobles County government after former county administrator Mel Ruppert's tenure came to an end, and it isn't a phrase used lightly.

Over the course of the past three months, county commissioners have made a concerted effort to begin the healing process, from opening the lines of communication to working on rebuilding trust. The first step took place on the afternoon of April 3, when commissioners David Benson (board chairman) and Robert Demuth Jr. (vice chairman) met with department heads. It was the first meeting between commissioners and department heads in four and a half years.

"Personally, I just want to apologize to the people of Nobles County and ... the other elected officials, the department heads and staff that it took so long to get to this change," Benson said Wednesday. "I so sincerely wish it could have happened sooner. We need this change in management philosophy and practice."

That change Benson speaks of has a lot to do with Toni Smith, education director at the Association of Minnesota Counties. Smith provides facilitation services in the areas of planning and goal setting and is utilized by counties working to overcome obstacles and conflicts. She was hired by Nobles County to help with the rebuilding process.

Smith made her second visit to Nobles County Monday afternoon, meeting with department heads who hadn't attended her initial session in mid-June. She describes her role as that of facilitator. She isn't bringing in ideas on how the county can move forward --that's a process both department heads and commissioners will need to determine.

"I think it's been very productive," Smith said of the meetings so far. "There's a willingness of staff to come together."

That alone makes her job easier.

"If I had to walk in and they weren't willing, it would be very hard," Smith said. "If they're not ready to move forward, you can imagine how difficult it would be."

A believer in openness and honesty, Smith said her first two sessions with department heads have included bringing past experiences out in the open.

"I really want to dwell on the positive -- respect what happened, learn from past experiences and move forward," she added.

"I am not a consultant with the answers. I come in with the belief that the answer is in the room," Smith said. "I come in with the belief that many of these people really care about the county -- that they really want to do the best for the county."

Smith said she's been impressed with the positive stance among department heads regarding pulling together as a team, but she also recognized the efforts of Benson and Demuth.

"(They're) really working hard to listen to staff," she said.

Benson sees that process of sharing -- open communication -- continuing as the county moves forward, regardless of who is elected this fall to fill the five county commissioner seats as well as who is ultimately selected to fill the role of county administrator or coordinator.

"There should be no fear in expressing yourself -- what your feelings are and what your suggestions are," Benson said. "You should be really able to feel open and uninhibited in a sense."

He also wants to see the lines of communication open beyond that of commissioners and department heads, including all county employees in the process.

"We have to rebuild a lot of trust, I think," Benson said.

Recently, both Benson and Demuth, along with interim county administrator Vijay Sethi, met with county deputies and jailers, and Benson said over the course of the next month and a half they'd like to meet with employees in each of the remaining departments.

"This is the first time they've ever had direct input in a sense," Benson said. "I'd like to see that staff input somewhat regularized, too."

In just the last three months, two commissioners -- typically Benson and Demuth, with Marv Zylstra as an alternate -- have conducted five meetings with department heads and elected officials. The group, called the management team, has elected its own chairman and vice-chairman, and commissioners don't have a vote in any decisions made by the group. Their support comes when actions made by the team are sent on to the county for approval.

Since the team began meeting, Benson said a lot of their work has focused on county policies. Already, the board of commissioners has approved three policy changes, ranging from the budgeting process to purchasing protocol.

"The budget policy (now requires) two commissioners and department heads and Sharon (Balster, Nobles County Auditor-Treasurer) fully involved," Benson said. "The auditor-treasurer should be involved and she was kind of shut out, quite frankly. That process now is much different."

Benson sees more policy changes coming forward in the near future, including potential for scheduling flexibility, particularly with employees in the human services and public health offices.

"Vijay has been very good because he comes from a county that has better policies, quite frankly," he added.

Sethi has talked many times with Smith regarding the "pulse of what's going on over here and how she might be able to come in," he said.

"She has gotten unedited feedback from all of the department heads, and now she is in the process of formulating a day-long session on Aug. 20," Sethi said. "We hope that what emerges is some consensus of what we expect to do in the coming months."

Smith, who is compensated mileage and a fee based on a half-day or full-day session, said she doesn't know how long her facilitation services will be needed in Nobles County.

"Ideally, you create the sustainability that this is their project and future work is totally up to them," she said.

Benson is pleased with the work Smith has done thus far.

"I feel good about this, although it's been a heck of a ride," he said. "I really feel we made the right decision. It wasn't easy, it cost us, but we made the right decision."

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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