By John Holler
With less than two months until the 2012 elections, one thing is already certain — there will be four new members of the Wright County Board of Commissioners when the commissioners are sworn in during the meeting in January. While having all five commissioner districts up for election at the same time is unprecedented, it won’t be the first time that four new commissioners will take office.
It happened 20 years ago when, at the time, the only sitting commissioner was Pat Sawatzke. Two years earlier, Sawatzke had been the new commissioner, joining longtime county board members Ozzie Arlien, Arlyn Nelson, Michelle Bogenrief and Wes Wittkowski. In the 1992 elections, four new commissioners were selected — Jack Russek, Dick Mattson, Ken Jude and Judie Rose.
Three of those members from the 1993 commissioner swearing in are still on the board (Sawatzke, Russek and Mattson) and the three reflected on those days and what may be in store for the new county commissioners when the new-look county board is seated in January.
Sawatzke said that the amount of information that comes at a new commissioner is extensive and, for the most part, he had to feel his way around. He had the benefit of four commissioners that had worked together for years and said it took some time for him to catch up to understand many of the issues that faced Wright County at the time.
“When you’re new, you do a lot of listening,” Sawatzke said. “You have a lot to learn. There are issues that deal with the highway department, the parks department, the surveyor’s department, the sheriff’s department, the county attorney, human services, administration and others. You end up doing a lot of listening because you have a lot to learn.”
When the 1993 board was seated, the four new commissioners each had their own learning curve. While they had backgrounds in township government and business, being county board members was something new to them and learning their way around county government was something new.
“The biggest thing to me was the number of meetings that you had,” Mattson said. “There are many committees that you are assigned to, but the longer you’re there, the more groups you get involved with. I spent many years working on transportation committees both in Wright County and for our region and it seems the longer you are on the county board the more of the committees and groups you get involved in.”
The difficult part of getting up to speed is that, unlike most jobs, county commissioners don’t have someone overseeing your work and setting the parameters of how it’s done.
“In the typical job, you have a boss that tells you what to do,” Sawatzke said. “As county commissioners, your boss is the voters that put you into office. There isn’t a blueprint of how to do your job and each commissioner takes his or her own approach to it.”
Russek said the greatest advantage he had coming was attending the new commissioner training seminar offered by the Association of Minnesota Counties. While the issues that impact Wright County may not translate to the other 86 counties in Minnesota, the lessons learned are valuable.
“I think it’s very important for any new commissioner to attend the AMC training sessions,” Russek said. “It was very valuable to me. They give you a crash course in all the different types of issues you will face. Some of them you’re already familiar with. Others, you’re not. It’s a great opportunity to get your feet wet and get to understand some of the things you will need to do and need to know as a commissioner.”
With several county department heads at their disposal, it is expected that the county will conduct its own in-house training, getting the new commissioners familiarized with the different departments in the county and how they operate. Sawatzke said that, having been through this process before, he decided to run for re-election to give the board some leadership and continuity if he is re-elected.
“The biggest part of the reason I decided to run again was because we knew very early on because of the redistricting process that we were going to create at least three new commissioner positions,” Sawatzke said. “We knew there would be a lot of turnover and I was encouraged to run again to keep some continuity to the board during this transition period.”
With all five commissioner district positions on the November ballot, the only certainty is that one commissioner — either Sawatzke or Rose Thelen — will be back in 2013. The other four positions will be filled by new commissioner candidates. Russek offered a piece of advice for those coming into the job — don’t try to please everyone, because it’s impossible. You have to make tough decisions.
“You can make some of the people happy some of the time, but you can never make everybody happy all the time,” Russek said. “If you come into this job thinking you please everyone all the time, you’ll find out quick that you were sadly mistaken.”