The Morrison County Board of Commissioners is again faced with a decision on whether or not to keep a county position as elected, or move it to one that is appointed.
Those are the two options presented to the Board, Tuesday, by City Administrator Matt LeBlanc. It is looking to find a full-time replacement for the county’s auditor/treasurer position, which was vacated by Chelsey Robinson, Sept. 16.
Prior to her resignation, Robinson had filed for re-election. Running unopposed, she received 11,457 votes (98%) to win the Nov. 8 election.
“On the 11th of November, I spoke with Miss Robinson myself and asked her intentions (for) the office,” LeBlanc said. “At that time, she expressed to me that she intends to decline the office of the auditor/treasurer. She will be submitting a formal, written determination on her wishes, as well.”
LeBlanc said, since Robinson gave notice of her resignation on Aug. 16, he has worked closely with County Attorney Brian Middendorf, the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) and other administrators across the state to determine the best way forward. Now that he has confirmation Robinson intends to decline the position, the Board has the option to either hold a special election to fill the position, or to change it to one that is appointed.
As such, LeBlanc said he spoke with a former Morrison County auditor/treasurer who had 28 years of experience to receive input on the benefits of both options.
“I’ve reached out to as many folks that I thought would be knowledgeable on this topic to gain as much fidelity that I can,” LeBlanc said.
The two key responsibilities of the auditor/treasurer, outlined by state statute, is to oversee elections within the county, along with several portions of the county’s finances. In Morrison County, they also serve as deputy registrar in the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Among the benefits of appointing the position, according to LeBlanc, is that it allows for more oversight by the Board and more accountability. It also avoids the auditor/treasurer not being able to fulfill their duties of overseeing an election because they are on the ballot.
He added that, as defined in state statute, there are few requirements to run for an elected auditor/treasurer position. A person running for the position is not required to meet certain educational, background or experience standards.
“It could be required in a job description to require some technical qualifications, whether it’s financial or otherwise, that is not required when running for the office,” LeBlanc said. “(You would also have) the ability to replace if (they were) underperforming without waiting for the end of the term.”
On that last point, he said when the position is elected, the Board has no recourse if the auditor/treasurer is underperforming in their duties. They have to wait until their term expires. Even then, they can only hope that voters do not re-elect them.
LeBlanc said appointing the position also provides job security. As it is now, the auditor/treasurer could be out of a job if they do not win an election.
“If this is an appointed, you don’t have that type of uncertainty to work through,” he said. “Then, you also don’t have to spend the money to keep your job or that sort of thing when it comes to campaigning.”
The benefits of keeping the position elected, LeBlanc said, is for historical significance. The former auditor/treasurer he said he spoke with earlier in the week was one of only four to hold the job in Morrison County over the course of a century.
Another plus, he said, is that an elected official might be less hesitant to defy directives, if they don’t believe they are correct. That is to say, if the Board instructs them to spend money in a certain way, they may not be compelled to do so if they are not beholden to the Board.
“The other was balance of power,” LeBlanc said. “That, I think, implies and keeps in mind the representation of the people in an elected position.”
Currently, Debbie Symanietz is serving as the interim auditor/treasurer. She was previously the deputy auditor/treasurer for Morrison County.
Board Chair Greg Blaine asked LeBlanc if the Board is under any time constraints to make a decision regarding the position. He said, at the time he asked Symanietz to fill the role, she agreed to do so with the understanding that they would work to find a permanent replacement for Robinson.
“We are asking a current employee to work outside of their scope and to cover that position,” LeBlanc said. “Ultimately, we’re one short. The extra work of that is tough.”
He added that both options include a process that will take time.
Blaine asked further, if there was a defined end date for Symanietz’s time as an interim auditor/treasurer. LeBlanc said it would end when a replacement was either appointed or elected via a special election. He said his request to her was to “hold down” the position for three to five months.
To date, he said 32 of 87 Minnesota counties have moved to appointing their auditor/treasurer.
If Morrison County is to follow suit, the Board will have some work to do to change the position to one that is appointed. The first requirement is that public notice is given for two consecutive weeks, at the end of which it is to hold a public hearing to receive testimony and input.
Once that is complete, the Board must approve the decision by a supermajority, meaning four of the five commissioners must vote in favor of appointment. If that happens, there is a 30-day time period in which eligible voters can sign a petition to keep the position elected, if they so choose. If 10% of them sign, that would revert the process.
If all of that comes to be and the decision is made to make it an appointed position, the county still has three years to change its mind. The Board can reverse the decision via a referendum, which would define it as an elected position, once again.
“If this is the path we go down and it is determined to be the wrong path, it could be reverted,” LeBlanc said. “I think the three years is deliberate, so then as the next term of the election comes up, that position would be back on the ballot.”
Commissioner Randy Winscher asked if Symanietz could remain in the interim position until the 2024 election, if she agreed to do so. He also noted that the county has an elected recorder and asked if it would be possible to have a recorder/auditor/treasurer until the next election.
“I’m just throwing things out there,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Wilson said, if the Board was going to consider extending Symanietz as an interim auditor/treasurer, they would need to look at hiring somebody else to work in the office. He noted that she is currently doing her own job plus that of another person.
“I think Mr. LeBlanc, underscored that for all of us here,” Blaine said. “We didn’t dwell on that, but they’re short. They’re short a person in that office and we’re going to have to address that.”
He felt the best course of action would be addressing the auditor/treasurer position, then dealing with any “ancillary decisions” once that process is complete. He said there is a limit as to how long he would allow that department to run short-handed when they were already busy when fully staffed.
Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski said, working with AMC, Middendorf, LeBlanc and Auditor/Treasurer’s Office staff, he felt it wouldn’t be “rocket science” to figure out how long the county could go using an interim auditor/treasurer.
Wilson said he felt the first thing the Board had to figure out was whether four of the five members would support moving to appointment. If they did not, it was not worth having any further discussion on the issue because a supermajority couldn’t be achieved.
“I don’t know when that question comes up, but if there’s two people here who think, ‘I will not do this,’ then we have to go elected,” Wilson said. “We need four out of five. That’s the real story here.”
Blaine said receiving public input on the matter would help steer some of the Board’s decision making, in that regard.
“I think it’s fair to the rest of the Board here to also say that it’s hard to make a decision on that without taking input from the public,” he said. “That’s who we represent.”
“I would agree with that,” Wilson said.
Moving forward, LeBlanc said he would continue to consult with people in the auditor/treasurer’s office, as well as those who can give insight into the situation. He said he also said, under state statute, Symanietz’s appointment was “temporary.”
“I think I’ve got to look further at what the definition of ‘temporary’ is,” LeBlanc said. “I don’t know if it’s two years, but I owe that to the Board.”
He said both options can be reversed, if the Board is ultimately unhappy with what it decides.
“It’s a big decision,” Jelinski said. “The world has changed from 100 years ago to where we are today. There’s not a question there. I think that we can all agree on. Whether that influences myself or this Board’s decision as to how we’re going to move forward (I don’t know).”