County discusses future leadership structure

The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners take a vote on whether to allow former county administrator Pat Oman to leave in good standing or not. Pictured on left is Commissioner Dave Oslin and on right is Commissioner Roger Tellinghuisen.

The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners held discussion during their regular board meeting and work session on Feb. 2 regarding the future leadership of the County – particularly whether the County would go back to a coordinator form of government over an administrator form of government in the wake of former county administrator Pat Oman’s abrupt resignation.

Oman resigned via letter to the commissioners on Sunday, Jan. 31. He asked to be allowed to leave in good standing. No other information was provided as to the reasoning for the resignation.

Holding back emotion, commissioner Dave Oslin said tearfully, “It’s with regrets we accept this resignation. Things in life change, and people come and go … but a big thank you to Pat Oman for his service here. I know that my life has been better because I got to know Pat Oman.”

Commissioner Phil Peterson said, “I concur with that.”

Holly Wilson, acting county administrator, recommended Oman be considered in good standing and also eligible for the 240 vacation hours he requested, even though the resignation came without the 30 days notice which is in his contract. County Attorney Joe Walsh agreed and said this would be common practice in his department. Wilson said this was consistent with other departments as well.

Oslin said, “Pat had 550 hours of sick time [accrued], and we all know he was here all the time and was a workaholic and has certainly done things over the years here for us that would put him in good standing.”

The newly appointed board chair, Oslin, called for a vote. All but Commissioner Roger Tellinghuisen voted in favor of allowing Oman to leave in good standing with regrets along with vacation payout.

FUTURE LEADERSHIP STRUCTURE DISCUSSED

During the work session on Feb. 2, the board addressed the replacement process of Pat Oman and how that position would look. Wilson said the County could use human resources to find a replacement or use an outside firm to replace Oman. Consensus was made to have Wilson reach out to an outside firm as to not overwhelm County resources.

Discussion was then held regarding whether or not the County should switch back to a coordinator form of leadership which would give more control to commissioners and department heads.

Wilson stated she felt a coordinator form of leadership would create a more limited pool of candidates and recommended hiring Oman’s replacement as an administrator. “They’ll have more experience, and the majority of counties are an administrative form of government,” added Wilson.

Commissioner Genny Reynolds agreed, stating, “If we didn’t have as much going on as in Mille Lacs County, then a coordinator would work. But I would prefer an administrator.”

Peterson added, “I think it would be stepping back in time. If you want to be down here a lot, then let’s go with a coordinator. Whereas, an administrator can take care of what we want and push it forward for us.”

Commissioner Tellinghuisen stated he wouldn’t be opposed to a coordinator position, adding, “I thought, before all this with the north end and everything else, that the board should be more hands on in making decisions rather than the administrator … There is just a whole lot going on in this county and I would prefer if we were all making the decisions.”

Peterson asked Tellinghuisen what decisions he felt they were being left out of. Tellinghuisen responded, “I would rather not say here all my thoughts.”

Commissioner Tim Wilhelm expressed his desire to clearly define the type of leadership they should hire. “For the last year and a half, the board lost control of the County,” said Wilhelm. “And from that standpoint, I would be opposed to an administrator – where a coordinator would be more subject to the board.”

Wilson added that those expectations in an administrator could be communicated to the outside hiring firm.

Various department heads were then asked to come forward and share their opinion on the differences in the two forms of county leadership. Community and Veterans Services Director Beth Crook was in favor of an administrative form of leadership, stating her opinion that it ran more efficiently.

Tellinghuisen added, “With a coordinator, we’re more involved with the concerns the employees have. Our job is to set the budget and make policy. I know there are a lot of departments who would like to say something, but they can’t because we had an administrator. It’s not a communist country; everyone should have a say … I’m a believer that if you have a problem, talk to us.”

Technology Services Manager Michael Virnig said he preferred a coordinator form of government and enjoyed reporting directly to the board. Land Services Director Michele McPherson agreed with Crook and felt an administrative form of government ran more efficiently.

County Attorney Joe Walsh added that it is more risky for elected officials to make daily decisions in that there is greater opportunity for people to accuse the board of favoritism or open meeting law violations. “Having a county administrator greatly reduces those risks. I would recommend hearing what MCIT has to say. Most counties are moving toward an administrator,” said Walsh, adding that there are statutory requirements that come along with an administrator position and their authority.

Oslin asked Wilson for more specifics on compensation with each of the job titles and felt they should have MCIT (Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust) come in and address the issue.

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