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Some argue certain positions have become too technically demanding to put to vote

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WILLMAR -- Appointing, rather than electing the county surveyor, recorder and auditor/treasurer will be discussed Tuesday when the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners meets.

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The current system of electing those three officials is working fine and the county has "great people" in the positions, said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

But he's proposing that the commissioners consider the pros and cons of appointing those individuals instead.

"We're not unhappy with the way things are," Kleindl said. "It's my job to put different ideas out there and run it up the flagpole."

He initially brought up the topic in December, saying that legislative action would be needed this year in order to make the change before elections in 2010.

The proposal got a less than lukewarm response from most of the commissioners at that time, but they did agree to revisit the topic in January.

So far, 25 counties have made the switch to appoint "row" officers and more are doing it, according to Jim Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

He said about 10 more counties will be seeking special legislation this year to be allowed to appoint "row" officials. The term "row" apparently is in reference to how the independent offices appear "in a row" on an organizational chart or election ballots, according to the National Association of Counties.

Last year, when the Yellow Medicine County auditor/treasurer retired, the county obtained special legislation to appoint a replacement. When the recorder's elected term is done next year, that position will also be appointed.

"I did not hear anything negative about it," said Administrator Ryan Krosch. "It was a smooth process for us and we're happy we did it."

There are some legitimate reasons for having row officials appointed, said Mulder, including the fact that the jobs have become specialized, complicated and technical.

Unlike the county sheriff who must be a licensed peace officer and the county attorney who must be a licensed attorney to run for office, under Minnesota law there are no minimum requirements for being elected as recorder or auditor/treasurer.

With multimillion dollar investments under the management of the auditor/treasurer, and new technology that's used to record land sales, there is the potential for unqualified people to win election, Mulder said.

That happened a few years ago in one Minnesota county when a barber, who was very popular with voters, was elected as recorder, Mulder said. The man had no idea how to do the job, which Mulder said now needs a background in real estate law.

Mulder said it has become necessary for an auditor/treasurer to have a certified public accounting background and to be a "very sophisticated finance person."

Krosch said their new auditor/treasurer had been a CPA. "It's nice to have that assurance that we can have that expertise in that position."

Also, when officials are elected, county commissioners have no jurisdiction in how those departments are run other than to set the budget and salary for the official.

Having appointed officials could give the county more flexibility when it comes to restructuring government, Kleindl said.

The rub is that members of the public can feel disenfranchised because they can no longer vote for those positions.

At the Kandiyohi County Board's December meeting, County Recorder Julie Kalkbrenner said she was "elected to my position by the people of the county."

There are two ways for the county to make a change. Special legislation, which would require local public hearings, could be obtained. Or, the issue could be put to county voters in an election.

Kalkbrenner said if the county does pursue appointment, she hopes an election would be conducted. Doing otherwise would be "circumventing how government was structured" and would be "kind of a poke in the side" of people who have already "lost trust" in government.

That sentiment was echoed by several commissioners last month.

"I'm not really in favor of it," said Commissioner Dean Shuck. But if it was pursued, he said he would put the question to voters instead of seeking special legislation.

"I can't tell you how surprised I'd be if the people voted for a change," said Commissioner Richard Falk.

Mulder said there have actually been many changes in what positions are elected.

In the past, city residents voted for everything from police chief to city clerk.

Counties also used to hold elections for coroner, court administrator, school superintendent, highway engineer and assessor. Those are all now appointed positions.

Most counties have appointed their surveyor for years. Kandiyohi County is one of just three or four counties that currently elect a surveyor, Mulder said.

Making the surveyor an appointed position would not require legislation or an election but would take simple board action, Kleindl said. The commissioners seemed more open to the possibility of appointing a surveyor than they did for changing the other two positions.

The Kandiyohi County Commissioners will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday on the second floor of the Health and Human Services building.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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