WILLMAR -- In a unanimous vote Tuesday the Kandiyohi County Commissioners voted to appoint Ann Stehn to oversee the county Public Health and Family Services Departments on a permanent basis.
The action is the first step in merging the two departments into a new combined entity that is tentatively being called the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Department.
Stehn was praised for being "trusted" and "respected" by employees from both departments.
It's "important we have the right people" at the right place and time, said Commissioner Harlan Madsen, in support of Stehn.
Stehn has worked for the county's Public Health Department since 1996 and has been the director there since 1998.
After Jay Kieft resigned as Family Services director in March, Stehn was appointed to also oversee that department on an interim basis.
During that time the County Board of Commissioners hired a consultant to study the county's structure and propose ways to make county operations more efficient.
Based on that study and the work Stehn has done on an interim basis, County Administrator Larry Kleindl recommended that Stehn be hired to lead both departments and help move them to a new merged structure.
The state would need to approve a formal merger of the two departments but sharing of staff, programs and services can take place under a restructured model.
"Ann has done a great job these last couple months," said Kleindl, who also offered other options including hiring a separate family services director. But the commissioners quickly agreed that making Stehn the full-time director for both departments was the best option.
"I look at it as an opportunity," said Commissioner Dennis Peterson. "Now is the time to do it."
Kleindl said knowing who is going to be leading the new Health and Human Services Department will make it easier to restructure it. He said building from the bottom up could have been troublesome.
But Kleindl told the board they cannot combine two departments that had separate directors in the past and expect Stehn to do both jobs without additional support.
While the director can deal with the "large picture" components of running the department, staff would be required to oversee the day-to-day operations, he said.
In a later interview, Stehn said now that she is no longer working on an interim basis ,she can work with administration, the board and staff from the two separate and "distinct" departments to develop a structure and "new way for the future."
Working with the two departments since March has "given me a wonderful opportunity to be able to work across the different departments," she said. "It's really just doors and hallways that separate us."
The departments are housed on opposite sides in the Health and Human Services Building.
As the process continues, decisions will be made on how to provide programs differently that touch staff and consumers, she said.
"We're in one building so it's very feasible to figure out a new way for us to work together in the future," Stehn said. "We certainly have things to work out, but we'll get there."
Chairman Richard Larson said the public will not notice any change in services, unless it's improved service.
Tuesday's action is part of a wide-reaching proposal to restructure the county's administrative format. The board is expected to hold retreats this fall to thoroughly review options included in the consultant's report and make decisions about reorganizing other departments.
In other action Tuesday:
- The commissioners amended lease agreements for buildings the county owns on the MinnWest Technology Campus but leases to the state for mental health services. The state has not fully refunded the county for expenses with the buildings from 2008-2011. The amended leases are an attempt to resolve the issue.
- The commissioners agreed to allow special hunts at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center on Oct. 9 and Dec. 4-5 for individuals with disabilities.
- The commissioners heard a report on the county's truancy program and efforts to work with parents and students to keep kids in school.