County talks EM position

WORTHINGTON -- One week after Nobles County department heads, county commissioners David Benson and Bob Demuth Jr. and other administrative committee members met regarding the future of the Emergency Management office, the full board came togethe...

WORTHINGTON -- One week after Nobles County department heads, county commissioners David Benson and Bob Demuth Jr. and other administrative committee members met regarding the future of the Emergency Management office, the full board came together Tuesday for its first open discussion since the dismissal of the county's EM director, Emily Cenzano, earlier this month.

Faced now with refilling the position, the board identified three main issues Tuesday they will need to consider in the coming days. Benson, as board chair, said he wants to come to some resolution regarding the future of the EM position during next Tuesday's board meeting.

The three issues identified for further discussion include: whether to return the position to full-time status rather than its current three-fifths time; to decide where the EM office should be housed; and to consider leaving the position under the guidance of an existing department or making it a standalone office.

In the course of the past week, county commissioners have received correspondence from Sheriff Kent Wilkening, the Sanford Worthington Medical Center Emergency Preparedness Committee, Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh and Minnesota's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Region 5 program coordinator Amy Card.

It was information from Card, detailing the responsibilities of a county emergency management director, which led Benson to suggest board members consider making the position full-time again. The position has been three-fifths time since January 2011.


"Looking back on the issues we've faced in the past, especially looking at the sheet (of responsibilities) ... I'm looking at a full-time position as something we would support," Benson said.

Card explained that pre-9/11, the position of emergency management director was "pretty easy."

"After 9/11 is when politics got involved --the feds got involved in state and local levels," she said. "There's a ton of requirements of what the nation needs to do to be prepared."

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Card said even more responsibilities have been placed on emergency managers --some details of which are still being worked out. As part of her role, she works with emergency management directors in southwest Minnesota to make sure they meet requirements set forth by the federal government. Each time new individuals are hired to fill the position, she meets with them to detail all of the reporting responsibilities and monitors their progress as they complete 200 hours of training for their certification.

Several of the commissioners agreed that the position should be full-time, but they didn't openly discuss Tuesday where the office should be located. The emergency management director has always been housed in the Nobles County Government Center, but Wilkening is requesting the office be moved to Prairie Justice Center with law enforcement. He presented his proposal to the administration committee a week ago, and the one-page outline was made available to commissioners on Tuesday.

Wilkening suggested making the emergency management position full-time, to include hours each week for court security. He also wants the person to report to the sheriff's office rather than the county administrator.

Joyce Jacobs, executive director of the Southwest Minnesota Chapter of the American Red Cross, also asked Tuesday that the position be moved to the law enforcement center.

"I hope that it will be taken under great consideration to move the department under Kent Wilkening," Jacobs told commissioners. "We think the department needs to work effectively."


She was also in favor of making the position full-time again, adding someone is needed to help lead practice drills and write grants.

Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert said in researching how other counties handle the position, nearly half of the emergency management directors are under the direction of the county sheriff. The rest fill the role as a standalone office, or with other responsibilities in the county.

Ruppert said there were "any combination of services" that could be looked at to make the emergency management position full-time again, adding that Nobles County Community Services has a need for emergency health planning and nuisance issues. Other suggestions made by Commissioner Vern Leistico included providing social work for Community Services and maintaining responsibilities as the county's safety officer.

"I'm sure we could come up with enough things to do for it to be full-time, one way or the other," Leistico said.

Benson said he didn't want to jeopardize the public health role by moving the office to Prairie Justice Center, but Wilkening assured him that wouldn't happen.

"No matter where this is at, if it's under my office or under my control, the working relationship won't change with public health," Wilkening said.

Jennifer Weg, chief nursing officer for Sanford Worthington, and Reed Fricke, radiology manager, conveyed their approval for the office's move in a letter written to commissioners on March 23. In it, they write, "We are in support of this change if it promotes stability of personnel in this position. ...As we currently have a working relationship with the Nobles County Sheriff's Office, it is our desire to expand on that in regard to emergency management."

The cost of moving the emergency management position from three-fifths to full-time would impact the county's overall budget by approximately $15,000 per year. At three-fifth's time, the emergency management budget is $62,538.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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