Election only first part of being a county commissioner

Published 7:09 am Monday, February 8, 2010

The 5th District will finally have a commissioner Wednesday as Mike Ankeny or Ron Felten will be elected, but the election is only the first part of a complex job.

After the election, either Ankeny or Felten will be sworn in by the March 9 county board meeting, possibly as early as Feb. 23.

Special election

After Ankeny or Felten is elected, the winner will only serve for the remainder of former Commissioner David Tollefson’s term, which is up for re-election this November.

This isn’t the first special election in the 5th District.

Garry Ellingson won a special election to become the 5th District commissioner in March of 2001 after Commissioner Gary Nemitz retired.

“It’s a big job, takes a lot of time,” Ellingson said. “You better be ready to dedicate your time to it. It interferes with a lot of family things. You better be willing to commit totally.”

Ellingson, who served on the board until 2006, successfully won re-election less than a year after he was elected.

The transition to the role was easier for Ellingson because he was a deputy on the Mower County Sheriff’s Department for more than 30 years and was familiar with the process.

While the winner will need to seek re-election this November, Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said the short period could be beneficial for the winner.

“It’s only going to be for about eight months that they’re doing this, but it’s going to give them a real good taste of what we do and if it’s something for them. … A person could get in there with the misconception that this is a piece of cake,” Gabrielson said. “They might find that it’s not for them at all.”

If the winner of the Wednesday’s special election goes on to win re-election in November, Gabrielson said the commissioner would have a base of experience at the start of a full term.

“If they do get re-elected, they’re going to feel much more comfortable when they start their four-year term,” Gabrielson said. “So that is definitely an advantage, being able to take a baby step, so to speak, for that eight months.”

‘I learn something everyday’

Before being elected the 1st District commissioner in 2008, Gabrielson had attended county board meetings on Tuesdays for almost a year and a half.

“More power to these guys,” Gabrielson said. “Really, I wish both of them luck, but it’s going to be eye opening. Even though I went to all those meetings for a year and a half, it was a lot more in depth.”

Along with attending the weekly meetings, commissioners serve on a number of committees. For example, Gabrielson and Commissioner David Hillier head the personnel committee and oversee all hiring and firing for county unions.

“Most people are under the impression that the commissioners have three meetings a month on Tuesdays, which is correct. But that is just for the regular board meetings,” Gabrielson said.

In January, Gabrielson attended more than 15 meetings. This week, Gabrielson has a meeting on every work day.

“This is a typical scenario,” Gabrielson said.

While Gabrielson said he was at an advantage because he’d attended county board meetings before being elected, he still had a lot to learn. Gabrielson said it takes some time to understand all the different facets of the job.

“I had the tip of the iceberg that I saw and just keep digging deeper into it as time goes on,” Gabrielson said.

That learning process is far from over, as Gabrielson said he’s still learning: “I learn something everyday,” he said.

Budget

Once elected, Ankeny or Felten will join a board facing a unique set of challenges because of the struggling economy and budget issues, said Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

“They’ll have a heck of a job,” Oscarson said. “This is probably the most difficult time in county government I’ve ever seen because of the budget and the economy.”

As the budget issues continue, Oscarson said the county board will eventually need to hold discussions about what services the public wants to offer.

“Commissioners, state legislators, city council members, school board members and all the people who work for them are going to be challenged with tight budgets,” Oscarson said. “With tight budgets, it’s going to mean some reduction to services. You can’t always do more with less. There are limits.”

Oscarson said the newly elected commissioner will need thick skin, because they won’t ever make a decision everyone likes.

When dealing with the budget and other issues, Gabrielson said a commissioner needs to realize he can’t do everything by himself.

“You have to have a majority — and that’s three out of the five — to get anything passed or through,” Gabrielson said. “Teamwork is everything, and you have to get the trust of the rest of the board members.”

Oscarson stressed that ideas need to go to the committees first before going before the whole county board.

“They need to understand it’s a board. It’s not a one,” Oscarson said. “The majority governs.”

Learning curve

Both candidates have some board experience. Ankeny serves on the Cedar River Watershed Rules Committee, and Felten has served on the Austin Utilities Board for about eight years. Oscarson said that experience will be beneficial as the winner learns the role.

Oscarson said he’ll also spend time with a new commissioner to teach him more about the role of county government.

Often times when a new commissioner is elected, an informational day is arranged for him or her to meet with every department head to discuss what each department does.

Both candidates have called Oscarson to learn about the issues involving the county.

“I think both of them have shown that they’re interested in the job,” Oscarson said. “If they take that interest and put it in high gear, I think they won’t be at a disadvantage.”

While he said a commissioner can become comfortable with general aspects of the job within a few months, Oscarson said it can take two years to become familiar with all aspects of the job, especially things like the annual Association of Minnesota Counties conference and yearly meetings.

Flexibility is a necessity to be able to make all the meeting and events, Gabrielson said.

“Most people would never be able to do this job if they carried a full-time job,” Gabrielson said.

Wednesday

The special election is Wednesday, and polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Southgate Elementary School and Austin High School.