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Board, auditor- treasurer at odds over records

The Mower County Board of Commissioners and the county auditor-treasurer are at odds once again.

The board voted unanimously during a public meeting Tuesday to have the county recorder’s office take over vital statistics records, or records of a person’s birth, death, marriage and other information.

Auditor-Treasurer Doug Groh cautioned the board against moving the records, warning it could cause liabilities for the county and taking it from his department would make their work more difficult. Commissioners said the move would allow another department to oversee the records and ease the workload on Groh’s office at no extra cost.

“We were able to solve the problem for free,” Board chairman Jerry Reinartz said.

At first the board and Groh disagreed on the decision, but tensions rose to the point where Groh accused the board of attempting to diminish his office to try to remove him.

“Your intent is to move me out, get me out of this job,” said Groh, who has served as auditor-treasurer, an elected position, for the past 11 years.

Though Groh and the board have disagreed over the years, this issue started at the beginning of 2013, when Groh approached the county’s personnel committee about cutting vital statistics records hours from five days per week to three days a week to reduce county employee workload.

The board agreed to reduce vital statistics record hours for a six-month trial at the end of January. Shortly after that, according to Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson, the auditor-treasurer office started to withhold access to the records.

A county worker must be present when someone looks at vital statistics to preserve records and prevent people from looking at protected data, such as whether a resident was adopted.

Groh says his office was short-staffed and overworked, which meant employees wouldn’t be able to supervise public access. He instead asked the public to submit applications so county employees could find the necessary information.

That hasn’t sat well with some in the public, particularly genealogists looking into family history. Oscarson said the board has heard several complaints, including some in writing, over the issue.

The personnel committee spoke with Groh Monday over potential solutions: Either digitize the records or turn them over to the Mower County Historical Society. Oscarson said it wasn’t until after the personnel committee meeting that County Recorder Jill Cordes offered her department’s services.

Groh said after the meeting the move would create more work, as his staff would have to spend minutes walking across the hall to access information when they update election rosters. In addition, he told the board he was concerned the recorder’s office would face an unnecessary liability by continuing to allow the public to handle the physical documents.

“They’re willing to do the job, and you’re not,” Commissioner Mike Ankeny told Groh.

County Attorney Kirsten Nelsen also said the auditor-treasurer’s office was technically violating state statute by not allowing residents to see the records when they wanted.

“The statute indicates the information has to be open and available during business hours,” Nelsen told the board and Groh.

Commissioner Tony Bennett said he doesn’t like getting into back-and-forth exchanges during meetings, and emailed the Herald a response afterward. He said Groh suggested moving records to the Historical Society, as he lacked the tools and resources to provide the service.

“Ultimately the board felt that the Recorder’s office would be a better fit, as it’s directly across the hall from his office,” Bennett said. “This is more convenient for him, they are willing and able, and it adds no additional cost to the tax payer.”

Both Groh and Oscarson believe the issue has more to do with the disagreements between Groh and the board over the years.

Groh said he has continuously been micromanaged, given little direction and has had his role diminished over the years. He cites the board’s decision to give him a small raise this year after freezing his salary for the last two as an example of the board punishing him.

While other department heads and elected officials received praise during the commissioners’ salary recommendations in December 2012, Groh was told he had shown improvement but still needed to work on a few items. Groh contends the personnel committee never gave him a clear outline of their expectations and simply asked him a few questions during his review, essentially leaving him with no explanation on what he needed to work on.

Oscarson said the board has made changes to reflect growing government costs, which doesn’t mean the board is targeting Groh. Commissioners also said after the meeting they weren’t trying to force Groh out of office.

Oscarson believes the issues between Groh, the board and himself are about differing opinions on each office’s authority. He said the county could potentially solve the issue by bringing in an independent mediator to hash out each group’s authority and responsibilities, but all three parties would have to agree to mediation.

Groh said he has allowed the board to walk over him long enough and plans to speak out more on these issues.