The Morrison County Board of Commissioners began discussions on how to go about the search for a new county administrator, Tuesday.
The conversation came six days after County Administrator Deb Gruber announced her resignation — effective Sept. 3 — on July 14. Gruber has been with the county for 16 years, including the last 12 1/2 in her current role. She is leaving for an opportunity she “simply can’t refuse” in the private sector. She will be the director of human resources for RMS Energy, headquartered in Randall.
“I’m leaving here with somewhat of a heavy heart, but also with excitement about what the future holds,” Gruber told the Board, Tuesday. “I just want to thank everybody for that. Thank you for the opportunity that’s been given to me. I will forever hold county government in my heart. It’s part of who I am and what I’ve done and how I’ve grown up as a professional.”
After thanking Gruber for her service to Morrison County, Board Chair Mike Wilson opened what turned out to be an 80-plus minute discussion on the transition by bringing up the possibility of appointing an interim county administrator. He said he was in favor of bringing someone in, as it would likely take a while before Gruber’s replacement — whoever that may be — could start in a full-time capacity.
He asked the rest of the Board for their thoughts on how to begin the process of finding an interim administrator. Gruber said she could reach out to some contacts to see if they can give her names of people who could be interested in taking on that responsibility on a temporary basis.
She said some places also look in-house to see if another department head would be interested in the role.
“I think I would rather look in-house for someone that could step in for the — I suppose it’s going to be about three to four months — than find somebody on the outside that’s going to come in for three to four months,” said Commissioner Mike LeMieur. “By the time they start getting comfortable, it’s going to be time to give them the boot.”
He also expressed that he was in favor of contracting with a hiring firm to help with finding a full-time replacement.
Wilson said he agreed that the Board should first look internally to see if any staff members are interested.
Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski said that would be the “perfect scenario” if there was someone already within the organization who could take on that role. But, he said if that is not possible, he was in favor of hearing from David Drown Associates Human Resources, a hiring firm with which Gruber had already made contact.
“We’ve dealt with David Drown in the past,” Jelinski said. “I have all respect — I looked through this, I saw the people that they use for references. I know a couple of these individuals. I guess, I would listen to our administrator.”
Commissioner Greg Blaine said, regarding the task at hand, he wanted to assure county employees that the Board “is going to do everything that we can to find the very best person out there to step into this role.” He added that the Board is really only responsible for directly hiring two people: the county administrator and the outside auditor.
That said, he felt strongly that it wasn’t Gruber’s responsibility to help with the search for her replacement.
“Those responsibilities rest on this board, and this board should address that,” Blaine said. “I don’t expect this to be something that gets done fast, nor do I want this to be done fast. I would rather that we look at this from the perspective of, we’re not going out to plow the garden. We’re actually going out to weed carrots. So, this will be meticulous and this will be time-consuming.”
He pointed out that it has been 13 years since the Morrison County Board has been tasked with hiring a new administrator. With that being the case, he agreed with LeMieur that it was important for the county to engage with a search firm more familiar with the process. In fact, he said he wanted the Board to consider “at least three” different search firms.
By considering multiple options, Blaine felt the Board wouldn’t just be going with the first firm that came along and would therefore be providing better leadership and accountability.
“I think it’s important that we have more than just one option,” he said. “I never liked being in the position, ‘Well, this is your option so, you know what, it’s Lima beans for supper, because there is no meat.’”
The problem with that, Gruber said, is that she was only given the names of DDA Human Resources and Bakertilly as companies who help with job searches in the public sector. As of Tuesday, the latter of those two companies had not gotten back to her.
She added that “about 90 or more percent” of the county government entities in Minnesota had utilized the services of DDA Human Resources.
“If those options don’t appear to us in the first two, three, four days, or first week of this, then we’ll have to dig a little deeper and find those,” Blaine said. “That’s one of the reasons I said this isn’t going to happen fast or overnight, or probably should.”
He added that, in terms of bringing on an interim administrator, he felt it was more important for the Board to focus on the needs of the county and what major initiatives or projects were coming up in the short-term following Gruber’s departure.
In doing some of his own research, Blaine said he found some counties have worked out mutual aid agreements with neighboring counties. He suggested exploring if there was a neighboring county administrator who might be able to lend assistance during the transition.
He also said there are retired government professionals — who may or may not have been county administrators — who may be able or willing to fill an interim role. He said that would ensure the interim administrator had an in-depth knowledge of how county government works.
“We need to first understand, what are the needs that will present themselves going forward and then be looking at how we best address that,” Blaine said.
Commissioner Randy Winscher informed the Board he had already reached out to the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) for suggestions. One thing he brought up was that the county should look at postponing any major initiatives that are not urgent. Namely, he suggested the Board should “put off” the formation of a grant program from American Rescue Plan dollars that was discussed at the Board’s July 13 meeting.
He added that he was “on the fence” about bringing in an interim administrator.
“We have one of the counties here — now I think they have a coordinator — but they went, maybe, almost six months to a year without anybody in there,” Winscher said. “They struggled, but they got through it, just like we would do now.”
Wilson asked if it would be prudent to form a committee that would consist of only two board members, along with interested department heads and, perhaps, Gruber. That would allow them to meet to discuss the transition at any time without violating open meeting laws. Any time three or more board members are present, it is considered a quorum and must be open to the public, as well as being announced ahead of time.
Jelinski said he was also in favor of forming a committee, but Blaine felt it should be the responsibility of the Board as a whole.
“We have a five-member board,” Blaine said. “This is one of the few direct responsibilities that we have. In respect to my colleague to my right (Jelinski), we aren’t going to ask you, Mike, because you’re the chair this year, you drew the straw, so now you go and take care of this. This needs to be all five of us well engaged in this process and going through this process. We will be successful in doing this.”
He added that he wanted to make sure County Attorney Brian Middendorf was in attendance at all future discussions about the transition to be available for legal advice. One that immediately came to mind, he said, was if there was any way the Board could meet to strategize on the transition — without advertising it, though it would still be open to the public — without violating open meeting laws. He asked if going into an executive session was an option.
Gruber said that was only an option in three situations: discussing the performance of a director, labor negotiations or discussing a matter that contained attorney-client privilege.
Blaine asserted that he still believed all five of the Board members should be involved in each step of the process. He said that was responsibility they assumed when they were elected to a position in county government.
Wilson said the two questions the Board had to answer before leaving the room Tuesday, was whether or not it would look for an interim administrator and whether or not it wanted to work with a hiring firm.
Jelinski was in favor of going with a hiring firm and hearing a proposal from DDA Human Resources as soon as the Board’s next meeting, July 27. LeMieur agreed.
“Why would we at least not set up a meeting and talk to these people?” Jelinski said. “We could also go to our local newspaper and say, ‘We need to take out an ad for an administrator.’ That sounds easy. I don’t think it is that easy.”
Wilson asked if the rest of the Board would be comfortable hearing from DDA Human Resources next week if it was the only firm from which they had heard back. In the meantime, he encouraged the other commissioners to bring any other prospective firms to his attention.
Ultimately, Wilson suggested meeting with Gary Weiers of DDA Human Resources next week. If any other firms were available, he wanted to hear proposals from them Tuesday, as well.
“I want to have a decision on a firm next week,” he said.