By Emily Bialkowski
The Houston County Board voted to put Commissioner Teresa Walter at the helm Jan. 7 when they unanimously named her board chair. She succeeds last year’s chair Justin Zmyewski.
Commissioner Steve Schuldt was named vice chair, and more than two dozen committee assignments were approved. The extensive committee list can be acquired from the county auditor and includes many lesser-known committees such as the Southeastern Minnesota Emergency Medical Joint Powers Board.
Assignments on the Planning Commission were, however, held over and are expected to come Jan. 14.
This first meeting of the new year was also used to act on other annual recommendations, such as:
• Adopting a resolution “to use alternative methods to disseminate bids and requests,” for the Highway Department.
• Adopting a resolution allowing designated representatives to participate in meetings and activities of their respective state associations.
• Adopting a resolution authorizing signatures for Eitzen State Bank accounts.
• Establishing a minimum salary of $5,000 for offices to be elected in 2014.
• Set 2014 County Board meeting schedule.
All items gained approval.
For better efficiency, the County Board agreed that the separate Human Services monthly meeting – currently held the third Tuesday of each month – should be incorporated into the regular board meeting much like the financial update.
The suggestion was well received and adopted as presented.
Frac sand moratorium
Environmental Services Director Rick Frank provided the board with an update on the county’s frac sand mining moratorium and the board’s desire to extend the regulation one more year through March 2015.
Houston County’s moratorium is set to expire in March of this year, Frank said, and he has been working with the county’s land use attorney on drafting the extension. Doing so requires a public hearing and the adoption of an ordinance.
Simultaneously, Frank said the state continues its work on the hot button land use matter.
“We have just received the state’s draft ordinance. We are presently going through that, but that’s not set in concrete yet, either. (An extension) would give county and state time to review and accept public comment,” he said.
The board unanimously agreed to set a public hearing date of Jan. 28 at 10 a.m. to entertain public thought on extending the moratorium.
Two staffing items were brought before the board for consideration prior to entering into a closed session to discuss labor negotiations with the engineering assistants union.
First, the board approved hiring Samantha Hancock as a 67-day, temporary jailer/dispatcher. This is in response to another jailer/dispatcher gaining 0.5 FTE status.
Commissioner Justin Zmyewski asked if this was a position the jail could do without, but Jail Administrator Mark Schiltz said the staffing level is necessary per Department of Corrections regulations.
Human Resource Director Teresa Arrick-Krueger also pointed out that this was a replacement and not a new position.
Second, the board agreed to hire Mary Marchel as the new Public Health director, effective Feb. 10. Arrick-Krueger said the county was fortunate to have such an excellent and experienced candidate. Marchel comes from Beltrami County, whose population is roughly 44,400. There, she oversaw 135 full-time employees and a $24 million budget.
“I think you’ll be very, very pleased. She has a lot of wonderful ideas and a lot of energy,” Arrick-Krueger said.
Finally, the board voted to go into a closed session to discuss labor union negotiations with Local 49, the county’s newest union, after which time no action was taken.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Bryan Van Gorp, of Yucatan Township, urged the board to reconsider the length of time residents have to address the board. Current policy limits public comment to just two minutes on any non-agenda item.
“The two-minute sound bite is undemocratic,” Van Gorp said. “Nothing complicated or nuanced can be given justice in two minutes.”
He also asked the board to lead by thinking forward to the future and setting visions for the county. That vision should include creating renewable energy cooperatives, Van Gorp said.
Donna Buckbee, also of Yucatan Township, also asked the board to reconsider the two-minute public comment policy.
“It seems to me that your job as commissioners is to hear the people and not just have department heads come in and give their reports,” Buckbee said.
No action was taken on the suggestions.
As is common at each County Board meeting, each commissioner gave a brief synopsis of meetings and issues they have attended or dealt with over the last week. It was during this time Commissioner Judy Storlie requested that the county start video recording its meetings and posting them on the county’s website.
The idea received positive support. Walter said, “I like the idea of the video taping and being more transparent.”
Schuldt wondered what it would cost.
The board decided to have the IT director look into the cost and feasibility.
On a separate note, Zmyewski suggested the board should start looking into ways to operate each department more efficiently by utilizing “Lean” processes. Lean is a systematic evaluation that maximizes customer value while minimizing waste.
“Let’s look at jobs and make sure we’re not paying $24 per hour for someone to do record keeping,” he said.
Walter said she was in favor of doing so, but “we need to make sure people understand it doesn’t mean we’re cutting jobs. It means we’re becoming more efficient.”
The board agreed to start the process Jan. 21. This type of analysis will not be complete in one meeting and will likely take several months.