Bill to change county positions from elected to appointed at standstill

Published 10:52 am Friday, May 13, 2011

A bill allowing the county to appoint the auditor-treasurer and recorder is likely to pass. At least, that’s what Auditor-Treasurer Doug Groh expects.

“I suspect that this will pass,” said Groh, noting the Legislature has supported similar bills this session.

But the bill is at a standstill in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Rep. Rich Murray added Mower and Freeborn counties onto a Marshall County bill that already passed a committee.

Email newsletter signup

If it passes, the county board would appoint a recorder and auditor-treasurer, a decision that is now in the hands of county voters every four years.

However, no action has been taken on the bill since Freeborn and Mower were added. With 10 days left in the session, the bill may not reach the House floor, since the focus is on budget.

“We’re going to have to get a lot of work done in the next few weeks,” said Murray, who was hopeful they’ll still have time.

Groh said he’s not taking a position on appointing versus electing his office. However, he noted the county has been considering the option for about a decade.

“It’s an issue that keeps repeatedly popping up,” Groh said.

“It’s something that I have lived with for a number of years,” he added

This year, economics are driving the push to appoint, according to Commissioner Jerry Reinartz. If the county could appoint an auditor treasurer and recorder, the board could combine and reshape the offices of the recorder, auditor-treasurer and assessor to reduce staff and the number of department heads.

“We’re always looking at places we can save,” Reinartz said.

He said the appointments aren’t rare, and more than 50 counties appoint similar posts.

“It’s something that’s becoming more common with many counties,” Reinartz said.

Reinartz and other officials have said the county could save upwards of $70,000 a year by appointing those positions and through subsequent staffing adjustments. Groh, however, questioned the savings.

Groh said such savings are difficult to predict, and he could envision scenarios where changes end up costing more in the long run. He argued the offices are already operated efficiently.

“I disagree with the cost savings,” he said.

“There’s a great unknown there,” he added.

Still, Groh isn’t backing elections or appointments, as he can see positives and negatives with a move to appoint.

A positive would be that the board could make staffing changes and management decisions without having to worry about statutes.

“It allows them flexibility,” Groh said.

A negative is that it would take away the public’s vote.

Freeborn County Commissioner Dan Belshan said he opposed the move because it takes away the public’s right to vote.

“I’m not in favor of taking elected offices and making them appointed,” he said.

“I believe that those offices are elected and they’ve run quite well. I don’t want to take that away from the public,” he added.

Belshan said he trusts the public’s discretion of who is qualified.

“I think that the public is very intelligent on who to select for those positions, and I trust the public,” Belshan.

In fact, Belshan said he’d like to see more officials elected, including watershed boards. Belshan said there should be a bill to elect anyone who can levy taxes.

“This is the opposite of my philosophy,” he said.

Like Groh, Recorder Jill Cordes said she wishes to remain neutral.

“There’s good points and bad points on both sides,” Cordes said.

“Whatever the board decides, I’ll go with,” she added.

Commissioner Ray Tucker said the board needs to ensure people are properly trained for the positions, which become more complex by the year.

“Some of those jobs are getting more high tech,” Tucker said.

Commissioner Tony Bennett said he supports appointment, arguing the board needs to ensure qualified people are filling the positions.

“I think it’s something the commissioners should have a little bit more control over,” Bennett said.

Bennett noted there are no training requirements regarding a candidate for auditor-treasurer or recorder.

Bennett and Reinartz both assured the move is not intended to cut specific employees.

“It’s not like we’re trying to put somebody out of a job,” Reinartz said.

Ultimately, Groh said the decision will have to come from the public.

“I think it’s up to the people to guide that process,” Groh said.

“I’ll step back from it and do my work,” he added.

It appears the public will have ample chances to chime in. Kittson County already passed an appointment bill this year, and Murray said the Mower, Freeborn and Marshall bill offers additional time for public input and time for petitions.

“This bill gives citizens a longer time frame to give their input,” Murray said.