Wright Council Commissioner contends budget minutes are inaccurate

By John Holler

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When the 2013 draft county budget and levy were approved last month, Wright County Board Chair Rose Thelen voiced her opposition to the county using the money set aside for positions that will knowingly remain unfilled to keep the 2013 levy at a zero growth number over the 2012 levy. At the Oct. 16 meeting of the county board, it was Round 2.

The board was presented with the minutes of seven budget committee of the whole meetings that took place between Aug. 7 and Sept. 10. Thelen said that the figures that were presented at the Sept. 10 meeting weren’t accurately reflected in the minutes.

“Most of the minutes were okay — a simple account of the decisions that were made,” Thelen said. “I was concerned about a couple of meetings where disagreements occurred and where the minutes provide greater support for the majority decision. Greater accuracy would have provided equal coverage of the opposing view. I am concerned about the Sept. 10 minutes, where the total amount of money in the budget for unfilled positions and the portion that would be used to bring down the levy were different from presented that day.”

Assistant County Attorney Brian Asleson explained that the rules under which the county board operates are not verbatim accounts of the meetings, but should accurately reflect what took place. County Coordinator Dick Norman said he was the one who took the minutes from those meetings and was surprised that Thelen didn’t bring the concerns she had directly to him.

“My office is in charge of keeping minutes,” Norman said. “I don’t why the county attorney’s office was approached (by Thelen) rather than myself directly.”

Commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Jack Russek both defended the accuracy of the minutes, saying they looked fine to them and that Thelen was bringing up the matter simply because she opposed how the unfilled positions were part of the 2013 budgets. As to the providing of the minutes in one clump, Norman said it has always been county practice because he transcribes the minutes on weekends and after regular business hours and they take time. He told Thelen that there is audio of those meetings and that the tapes are available if she wants to listen to them, an offer Thelen accepted.

Thelen said that her questions are only over the potential inaccuracies of the numbers, but the longstanding practice of condensing minutes and providing them in one lumped group.

“While this has been the usual practice in Wright County, it is another aspect of the budget process that needs improvement,” Thelen said. “When a meeting participant receives seven sets of minutes spanning two months all at once, it is harder for participants to recall and correct inaccuracies, it reduces the public’s access to proceedings closer to real time and there is a greater risk of cherry-picking minutes and doctor that public record can occur.”

The minutes were approved by a 4-1 vote, with Thelen casting the dissenting vote.

In other items on the Oct. 16 agenda, the board:

HAD an incident during a break in the meeting that resulted in an armed deputy being brought into the county boardroom. Wright County resident Don Mashak, who had an ongoing argument with the county several years ago that resulted in armed deputies regularly being in attendance at board meetings, asked during the break to speak during the board meeting. When he was told he had to be on the board agenda to be part of the meeting, Mashak began loudly addressing the board from the audience, claiming that his freedom of speech was being abridged and he wanted to talk about tax increases to his property. The deputy asked Thelen to reconvene the meeting and, if Mashak continued to disrupt the board, he would be physically removed from the boardroom. Once the meeting was restarted, Mashak remained silent, flanked by two sheriff’s department employees.

BY a 4-1 vote, tabled discussion on a resolution that would declare Corinna Township at its own shoreland authority. The county has between Oct. 14 and Dec. 15 to make a decision on the matter. Thelen cast the opposing vote. Commissioner Elmer Eichelberg made a motion to agenda the matter at 9:30 a.m. as part of the Nov. 27 board meeting.

RECEIVED notification the state auditor’s office that the county can continue to conduct independent county audits for the 2012, 2013 and 2014 calendar years. In a related item, the county approved a three-year auditing contract extension with the firm of Larson Allen for the next three years.

APPROVED a letter of support for improvements to I-94 in Wright County to be included in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 20-year plan. McDOT’s draft 20-year plan currently doesn’t include any road improvements to I-94 in Wright County.

REFERRED discussion of fees for service charged by the auditor/treasurer’s office to the fees for service public hearing that is scheduled as part of the Nov. 13 county board agenda.

AUTHORIZED signatures on a $49,800 Emergency Management Performance Grant awarded to the county by the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

APPROVED payment of $149,406 to Mid-Minnesota Hot Mix for work completed on the Human Services Center parking lot repairs.

AUTHORIZED the attendance of the county’s delegation to the Association of Minnesota Counties to attend the District 5 meeting Nov. 1 in Brainerd.

APPROVED payment of $4,295 to J.L. Schmitz and Sons Excavating for removal of floating bogs on Locke Lake in Silver Lake Township that were causing flooding issues on County Ditch 24.