Crow Wing County could join other Minnesota counties seeking special legislation to eliminate elected positions.
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle previously suggested ending two elected posts — auditor-treasurer and recorder — in county reorganization.
A super majority, 80 percent, of the county board is needed to adopt the resolution.
“If two of you are opposed it’s not worth it because it’s not going to pass here,” Houle told commissioners Tuesday as he noted there may be an opportunity to join other counties interested in the same legislation. Houle said there are 10 counties, including Crow Wing, expressing interest in seeking special legislation. “The right to vote for an elected office that’s a rather sacred right and we have sent soldiers far afield in this world to fight and defend our ability to preserve this democracy and that’s a sacred, sacred thing,” Houle said. “But voting for everything isn’t sacred. If it were, then we ought to elect all county employees.”
Houle said if voting was sacred, then perhaps all the department heads should be elected.
“Then we might not need you,” Houle told the board members. “When is voting a sacred thing? It’s a fair question.”
Houle said he thinks elected officials should be those with significant policy discretion separate from the county board like the sheriff or the county attorney.
County Recorder Kathy Ludenia said Houle is not simply proposing to make elected officials appointed ones, but is proposing to eliminate the auditor-treasurer and recorder. Houle said the work would continue but the board has flexibility in how to do that. People may have different job titles as the assessor became a Land Services supervisor for property valuation and classification. Houle said he’d argue making sure the duties are done is more important than the job title.
Houle’s plan divides the auditor-treasurer’s office into other departments.
“I find it interesting that we went from being elected being a ‘silly little argument’ to it being a sanctified right in an election,” Auditor-Treasurer Laureen Borden said, quoting an earlier comment by Houle characterizing the elected versus appointed debate. “You give a very strong and persuasive speech, Mr. Houle. You’ve almost persuaded me even that it would be really nice to be appointed because then you wouldn’t have to go out and ask the public for votes. You wouldn’t have to go out and see what the public is thinking.
“... But I think it’s a very, very important thing to have these offices elected.”
Borden said her office has been working for the last two years to integrate the auditor and treasurer duties and now to split it into fragments didn’t seem workable. Being an elected official brings rights and responsibilities to the taxpayers, Borden said. “Not to the administrator, but to the taxpayers of the county and the commissioners who set our budget. If being appointed is such a great thing it makes you wonder why the commissioners aren’t appointed by the governor.”
Borden urged commissioners to talk to the people who elected them before they propose the resolution. Borden said a lot of people believe in the elected process and the ability to elect who serves in office. Commissioner Paul Thiede remarked the nation is not a democracy but is a republic and some of the practices that served in the past may be changing. Thiede said there was a better case in previous times for auditor-treasurer and recorder to be elected because the people didn’t have multiple venues to access information.
Paul Koering, who won the November election and will take over the District 1 seat from Phil Trusty in early January, said he understood the county has to keep moving forward. But Koering said he was concerned a lot of big decisions were being made before he was sworn into office.
One issue Koering ran on was being a no vote for a new Law Enforcement Center (LEC). On the elimination of the elected officials, he hasn’t made up his mind. Trusty praised Koering for attending the meetings as preparation for serving but said he found it concerning Koering would tell people how he’d vote before he knew he’d be in office.
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom asked Koering if, after he lost his senate seat, he invited his replacement to weigh in on issues. Koering replied he did not.
As far as eliminating the elected offices, Nystrom said it will be interesting to hear from constituents. Nystrom noted it’s rocky to change but the combined auditor-treasurer’s office seems to be working well.
Houle contacted the Association of Minnesota Counties and found 23 counties out of 87 counties have some appointed officers, including Hennepin, Cass and Olmsted counties. Houle listed a few counties, including Pipestone, Big Stone and Koochiching, where voters defeated measures to change officials from elected to appointed posts.
A reverse referendum gives the people a chance to change the measure. If 10 percent of the registered voters of the county sign a petition, the question would go to regular or special election. If no petition is received, the board’s decision for the change would go into effect. If the petition sends the question to an election, the people vote it up or down.
On Dec. 31, state legislators will be visiting the board. Houle said if commissioners want to ask for special legislation, that will be the time to do it. Thiede wanted the resolution put on the Dec. 31 agenda, noting that gives the public time to comment.
“It’s going to be very interesting, I think, to hear from our constituents,” Nystrom said. “I would not venture a guess at this point what the constituents are going to say about this ... Whether this would be embraced or you know rejected remains to be seen.”