The Morrison County Board of Commissioners will make a decision at its May 4 meeting on the next steps it will take in filling an upcoming vacancy of the County Recorder position.
During a lengthy discussion at its planning session Tuesday, the Board was presented four options on how to proceed. County Administrator Deb Gruber worked with a small committee along with out-going County Recorder Eileen Holtberg and her staff to come up with the options.
Previously, the county recorder has been an elected position serving four-year terms. However, legislation passed by the state in 2017 provided county commissioners with a path to change it to an appointed position. In February, Holtberg announced her retirement, which is effective May 14.
“That appointment discussion is something that’s not uncommon when it comes to managerial positions like this that don’t have a lot of discretion in their role in terms of policy-making,” Gruber said. “They follow rules and laws that are set out by not only the county, but the state agencies and such.”
The first option was to retain the position in its current state — as an elected department head. After the Board appoints an interim recorder — which it will do regardless of the option it chooses — the position will be on the November 2022 ballot, with the term starting in January 2023.
Gruber said one downfall to this option would be a possible scenario in which someone who does not currently work in the county recorder’s office were to win the election. In that case, a tech-level position would have to be eliminated because it was initially a backfill on an interim basis.
She also suggested, after working with an outside consultant, to change the level at which the county recorder is compensated. She believes the position falls more in line with a Grade 28 non-elected position — $57,782 - $76,044 — in options 1 and 2, or Grade 24 — $49,379 - $65,000 — in options 3 and 4 than its current level, equivalent to a Grade 33 non-elected position — $70,304 - $92,498.
Gruber said when it comes to the county’s classification and compensation system, the same factors are applied to all positions. It isn’t about individual performance. Factors in the system are: initiative and ingenuity, responsibilities, supervision, in/out contacts, complexity of duties, education/experience, learning time, physical effort and working condition
“I think, over time, as an elected official, that can kind of increase,” Gruber said. “We look at comparables outside of the county a little bit heavier than we do internal for that. Historically, it’s just morphed over time. Grade 28, if we looked at internally, would be where that recommendation came in.”
With that option, the new countyrecorder would appoint a chief deputy, which is a Grade 17 position at $40,601 - $53,415.
There is potential cost savings of $12,522 - $16,454 for the county in Option 1 if the Board elects to modify the recorder’s salary, but one is not guaranteed.
The second option would move the office to being appointed by the Board of Commissioners, but it would maintain its department head position. That would keep the county recorder’s office as its own, autonomous department.
If this option were adopted, no longer being elected, the recorder would not have the statutory ability to appoint a deputy chief. That position would be eliminated, with a third person taking on the tech salary range of $37,544 - $49,379 per year.
In its entirety, the option would result in a potential estimated cost savings of $15,580 - $20,487 per year.
“I think in a department of four, you can operate very nicely without that second in command, so to speak,” Gruber said. “I think that only having three people that you would supervise is completely reasonable, and we often do not have that second layer in a small, small office.”
A con for this option, according to Gruber, was misalignment of responsibility and duty for the county recorder she had laid out in Option 1. This, she said, is because the recorder currently acts in a more supervisory position in which it takes part in day-to-day operations such as helping at the front desk. Typically, she said department head jobs are more managerial.
In order to go with this option — along with the third and fourth — the County Board would have to set dates for two public hearings, one during the day and one in the evening. If, based on feedback it received during those hearings, it wanted to convert the position to one that is appointed rather than elected, it would have to pass a resolution with a four-fifths super-majority vote. That would trigger a 60-day referendum petition period during which the decision could be challenged.
The third option would be for the Board to appoint the new county recorder in a supervisory, Grade 24, position that reports to the land services director. This would take care of the misalignment of duties and responsibilities, according to Gruber.
“I think it would more appropriately align the duties and responsibilities with the level of management similar to how other departments operate in that we have a department head that has different functions and different supervisors that are more directly involved in the daily operation of that particular unit,” Gruber said. “Staff and the new supervisor would be supported by experienced leadership.”
The land services director position would go up only one grade in terms of compensation. As in Option 2, it would also eliminate the chief Deputy position. The estimated potential cost savings of Option 3 was $19,116 - $26,666.
She said this option is similar to how operations are conducted in neighboring counties such as Mille Lacs, Stearns, Crow Wing and Benton.
She said a con for this option was the perception of staff members who are being absorbed by another department and no longer independent.
The fourth option is nearly identical to the third, except the county recorder would answer to the auditor/treasurer which, unlike the land services director, is an elected position. The cost savings would be a bit less — $17,015 - $22,361 — than option three because the auditor/treasurer would be upgraded to be in line with a Grade 40 non-elected position, $92,497 - $121,700.
Board Member Mike LeMieur asked Holtberg and current Chief Deputy Jenny Sanders for their thoughts on the matter. Holtberg reminded the Board that, when she took the position eight years ago, the department’s staff was reduced by one person, 20%.
“So, for eight years we have saved one salary package, one benefits package — 20% of the work didn’t go away,” Holtberg said. “We made sure it still got done. Now, in seeing some of these options where it’s being referred to as more of a supervisory position, it’s like we shot ourselves in the foot by trying to save the county some of that money by reducing that staff and taking on the extra position.”
She also reminded the Board of the important decisions made in the recorder’s office regarding legal documentation. This can have a trickle-down effect to other departments and set the county up for lawsuits if not done correctly.
When asked directly, she said Option 1 would be her preference. Sanders agreed.
“I would just ask you to please [retain] Option 1,” Sanders said. “I would just like to say I’ve been here for over 22 years, and I hope that says something for the county.”
Board Member Greg Blaine thanked Holtberg and Sanders for their candor, and for giving the Board a more clear picture on the background and day-to-day operations of the office.
“It’s important that when we get this opportunity to visit with you here that we get full disclosure not only on what happens today, but what has happened in the past and the adjustments that have been made under your leadership,” Blaine said.
Much of the remaining discussion revolved around what would be the best way to move forward. Options 2, 3 and 4 all require the Board to set a date for a public hearing, but if two members were 100% in favor of Option 1, that would not be necessary.
LeMieur said, having had about two weeks to look over the options, and talked with Holtberg and Sanders, he was in favor of Option 1. He said he was “unlikely” to change his mind.
Board Chair Mike Wilson said, if there was another member in the same position as LeMieur, then calling a public hearing wouldn’t make a difference because the Board wouldn’t be able to get the fourth-fifths super-majority vote for another option. He did, however, say there was merit in letting the public have its say in the matter.
“We’ve always talked about the public’s involvement, if they would want this or don’t want this,” Wilson said. “I’m also not afraid to have a public hearing and find out what the public wants to do, if we choose to go down that road. If, at that time, we would hear at the public hearing they would want to look at 2, 3 and 4, I don’t have a problem with that.”
He added that the Board should also remember to look at the potential cost savings when reaching its decision. Board Member Jeffrey Jelinski clarified that the estimated savings laid out in each plan was annual, and not just a one-time figure.
Ultimately, the Board decided to bring it to a vote on Tuesday, May 4, and use that as guidance in terms of where it goes next.
“We take a vote and that will dictate, then, whether or not we want to have a public hearing; need to have a public hearing,” Blaine said.