Wright County: Coordinator or administrator? The debate is laid out

by John Holler


A week after Wright County Coordinator Dick Norman retired after 30 years in that position, it would appear the Wright County Board of Commissioners is at an impasse on how to move forward with the future of the coordinator position. At the June 11 meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners cancelled a personnel committee of the whole meeting scheduled for June 17 because the schedule didn’t fit for those being asked to speak to the board.

Those speakers were intended to provide the board with the pros and cons of continuing with a county coordinator or switching over to a county administrator. Aside from the title change, the difference between the two positions has become a subject of debate among the commissioners — primarily between Commissioners Mark Daleiden and Charlie Borrell. They both frame cogent arguments toward their side of the issue, despite being quite different in their approach.

As Daleiden sees it, moving to an administrator makes sense. When posed with questions concerning cost or feasibility of a proposed purchase or hire, the board often requests what other counties, especially surrounding counties, have done previously to get a gauge as to whether they have been effective. Every county that surrounds Wright County or is of comparable size has an administrator, not a coordinator. Daleiden believes that’s not a coincidence, especially for a county the size of Wright County. The county board doesn’t deal with the day-to-day issues that an administrator would handle, yet the board is asked to determine whether a department head is accomplishing his/her job well.

“An administrator is like the CEO of a company,” Daleiden said. “As a county board, we don’t deal much with a lot of the department heads. Yet, we have to evaluate department heads on their job performance. It’s difficult from our perspective, because we don’t have a real knowledge base of what they’re doing and if they’re doing it well.”

Borrell sees an administrator as an extra level of government bureaucracy that isn’t needed. The hiring of an administrator would provide a second authority flow-chart tree — and potentially deprive elected commissioners from having the collective control over county employees that they were brought to office to uphold.

“If it takes power away from the board, it takes power away from the people,” Borrell said. “It distances the people, but the biggest reason I favor a coordinator, is that, by state statute, a coordinator works at the pleasure of the board. Any Tuesday we could say, ‘goodbye’ and that person would be gone. An administrator, for the first year, serves at the pleasure of the board. After a year, that person can’t be dismissed. It has to be for cause. It almost always ends up in court. It costs a lot of money. You end up buying them off. Why put ourselves in that position when we don’t have to?”

Daleiden said that the current climate of how business is run is about keeping an eye on the bottom line. When dealing with money provided to you by taxpayers, efficiency is a must. An administrator, Daleiden said, would still work for the county board, but would be able to hasten action on items that would gain tacit approval from the board, but, because of the current system, are delayed.

“Some would like to see an administrator because they think things would get streamlined and the board becomes more of a visionary for long-term planning,” Daleiden said. “All the large counties in the state have administrators. We are the largest county in the state that has a coordinator.”

As strongly as Daleiden believes Wright County should make the switch to an administrator, as long as Borrell and Board Chair Pat Sawatzke, who has favored retaining a county coordinator, he is willing to let the issue die — even though he appears to have enough votes to get approval for the transition. If it’s going to come down to a 3-2 vote, Daleiden will be the decisive vote — the vote against the same policy he is championing.

“Some of the board members are concerned about giving up power,” Daleiden said. “Theoretically, an administrator would have more power the make those types of decisions than a coordinator. This decision (to change to an administrator) is too important for a 3-2 vote. This decision has to be better than that. At this point, I would have to think that a coordinator position is more likely because I won’t push it if I think we’re going to end up with a 3-2 vote — even if I’m on the winning side of the 3-2 vote. It’s too important a position for department heads to see that it was such a split vote. It needs to be as uniform as possible — the board is behind it. I won’t allow it to be a 3-2 vote.”

Commissioner Mike Potter is in favor of the administrator position as opposed to a coordinator, but said he respects the position Daleiden is taking — willing to back off of an issue he believes strongly in so as not to send mixed signals to county employees.

“That’s why I think Commissioner Daleiden is the smartest member of this board,” Potter said. “He’s willing to let something he believes in potentially get voted down by his own vote. He sees the big picture and I respect that. What sort of message would a 3-2 vote on that position send? We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

Borrell hopes Daleiden will maintain that integrity. If the question comes to a vote in July of this year or in July 2017 and both are in their second terms as commissioners, it would seem Borrell will be at least one vote guaranteed to be against the hiring of an administrator. An argument can be made for both sides, but Borrell has a line in the sand on this issue and it’s likely he won’t be dissuaded when the cancelled committee meeting is rescheduled.

“I can’t speak for the other commissioners, but, me in particular, my passion is to preserving things in the county when it comes to issues of freedom,” Borrell said. “That is going to get somehow distanced with an administrator. Wright County has been run pretty well. I give the old county board and Dick Norman credit for that. The system that we have has worked, is working and can work in the future. I think we will lose the ability to directly talk to department heads about issues because an administrator will have that authority. If you take authority away from the county board, you take authority away from the people.”


Contact John Holler at [email protected]