For more than 30 years, the Wright County Board of Commissioners have met four Tuesdays a month and, in some form – whether via VHS tape, DVD video or live streaming – has been broadcast to residents of the county.
But, this year, the county has reduced the number of regularly scheduled board meetings to three a month. The board still meets four Tuesdays a month, but one meeting has been dedicated to a workshop format to discuss issues of importance to the county that require a longer, more detailed look at the pros, cons and ramifications of decisions that the board makes.
It has been a change of direction that has altered how the commissioners approach discussing topics that require a more focused approach to lay out multi-layered issues. They aren’t conducive to being discussed under the timed agenda that the board tackles each week. Many times, when some commissioners aren’t as well-versed on topics discussed in committees they don’t serve on, questions arise that can’t immediately be answered.
The purpose of the monthly workshops is to provide a deeper level of background information. It’s been a process the county board has talked about doing for a while, but the timing was right to start doing it in 2019, with several big plans in the immediate future.
“It became part of the discussion last year when the idea was floated out there of having one workshop meeting every month or so in place of county board meetings,” Commissioner Mike Potter said. “The idea was to get information on issues that come before us without spending two hours at a board meeting discussing it for the first time, finding out we need additional information before we put it to a vote and then laying it over, pushing it to another meeting and then another and getting bogged down before we take action. This streamlines that process.”
The workshop format is not unique to Wright County. Several larger Minnesota counties have one or two workshop meetings a month for just this purpose – allowing for longer presentations and discussions on issues and getting questions answered before it comes before the board for a vote. In Wright County’s situation, the decision was made to wait until the county moved from a county coordinator model of local government to a county administrator, which happened in January.
Since then, there have been three workshop meetings – the most recent being April 9 – which have discussed issues including the role of the county’s website/social media presence, the agreement between the county and the FBI for the construction of a training center near the county jail, legislative updates and the future of the transportation coalitions working to get projects completed on specific highways that run through the county.
Commissioner Charlie Borrell said he initially wasn’t a fan of the workshop concept because he felt the committee of the whole structure was already in place to have such discussions without taking away a weekly board meeting.
But, he said the ability to fully vet out topics in a longer form that is typically afforded at board meeting has a positive component to it.
“What I like about it is that we can be a little more informal and have discussions that you don’t typically hear at board meetings,” Borrell said. “With all the items that come up on agendas, you’re kind of on a timeline to get through the topics in a reasonable amount of time. It doesn’t always allow thorough discussions. Another part is that board meetings are taped and a lot more people can – and do – watch them. I think some people are more reserved when they know they’re on camera. This allows more interaction and you wouldn’t be afraid to ask what some might perceive as being a dumb question. From that end of it, I think it’s a good thing.”
One of the recurring themes that will be part of the workshop format in the coming months will be the county board addressing significant time lapses in updating antiquated county policies. Advancements in technology have been the prior focus of policy amendments to take into account a mobile world of information, but there are some basic policies that are vastly outdated by not being updated or changed because an issue hasn’t arisen to require change.
Commissioner Mark Daleiden joked that, with some of it established county policies that haven’t been updated in decades, the county needs to “finally get out of the 18th Century.” While hyperbolizing, many county ditch laws that remain on the books come from more than 100 years ago and clearly changes have taken place throughout the county in that time.
The anticipation of the workshop format is to effectively set what used to be a county board meeting to address two, three of four topics as opposed to more than a dozen at a typical board meeting.
“It will help make us more focused and streamline things with the process when we started delving into the county policies that we’re so far behind with,” Daleiden said. “This format will help us a lot with that. There are some policies that are incredibly outdated, but we just haven’t had a chance to catch up with all of them. Having a workshop to discuss proposed changes to these policies can get everyone at the table at the same time and someone may have an idea or suggestion that none of the rest of us thought of that is a good idea to have going forward.”
While cleaning up outdated policies is necessary, the second goal of the workshops is to take into account the morphing nature of Wright County. With the pending closure of the Monticello nuclear facility, competition for state and federal highway funding dollars and issues tasking into account the county’s unprecedented tax capacity growth, the value of the workshops is as much tied into charting a path the future as correcting the past.
“The importance I see from these workshops is increasing the awareness for the board of bigger issues that are coming, how those can influence long-term budgeting plans and how it could impact our residents,” Potter said. “This board has taken the approach of looking a lot more long-term. Part of that is getting more background and detail in the subjects we’re taking on – whether it’s ditches or transportation or buildings or whatever – so we can make a more informed decision and be able to better explain why we made those decisions they we’re going to be making down the line.”
John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.