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Resignations lead Kandiyohi County, Minn., to study redesign of operational structure

WILLMAR -- The Kandiyohi County Commissioners are finding short-term solutions to fill two high-profile county vacancies while they buy time to study long-term options that could change the operational structure of the county.

On Tuesday the Board of Commissioners appointed Assistant County Auditor Mark Thompson as interim auditor to fill the unexpired term of Auditor Sam Modderman, who's retiring April 27, with almost two years left in his term.

A decision is still pending on finding a replacement for Family Services Director Jay Kieft whose resignation takes effect March 1. A recommendation for an interim replacement for Kieft, who has accepted a job in Wright County, is expected to be made at the Feb. 21 meeting of the County Board.

The timing of the two resignations took the commissioners a bit by surprise, but they came at a time when the county had been considering a review of the operational system, which has been in place since the 1950s.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to hire a consultant to lead them through the process of taking a wide look at how the county operates now and at potential changes that could help the county operate more efficiently in the future.

Those changes could include merging departments, reassigning department heads or merging services with neighboring counties. The county may even consider turning some statutory offices -- auditor, recorder and assessor -- into appointed positions rather than elected offices.

The study, which will be performed by Springsted Inc. of St. Paul, is expected to take two to three months to complete and cost $20,000 to $25,000.

Commissioner Dean Shuck said he does not object to the study and he acknowledged changes could save money, but he said it does not mean the current way the county is operating is "broken."

County Administrator Larry Kleindl agreed, but said when there are changes, like the resignations of two key county leaders, the county should take advantage of an opportunity to review "how we do business."

It's a "perfect time" to look at combining departments or sharing services with neighboring counties, said Kleindl, adding that the study will look at family services, public health and corrections departments and the auditor, recorder and assessor positions.

By naming Thompson as an interim auditor, both the county and Thompson will have time to consider the future of that position. If it remains an elected office, Thompson will have nearly two years to decide whether or not to run for office.

In a brief interview after the meeting, Kleindl said the county will be working with the Association of Minnesota Counties to explore legislative options that could allow counties to decide if the statutory offices of auditor, recorder or assessor should remain elected or should become appointed positions.

Currently, individual counties must get legislative approval to appoint those officers. Kleindl said he would like to see the Legislature give blanket approval to all counties to take action as they see fit.

It's an issue that has strong proponents and opponents, and there is not unanimous agreement among the Kandiyohi County Commissioners about whether the positions should be appointed or elected.

Kleindl said the cost of the study will be paid with savings from the resignations of Modderman and Kieft. He said because the city of Willmar and the Municipal Utilities Commission also are using the same consulting firm, some travel expenses incurred by the company can be shared by the two entities.

In a letter to the county, the company said counties are under "a great amount of pressure" to provide services within a tight budget and local government entities are "finding it prudent" to review the traditional methods for delivering those services.

The study will include surveys, interviews, tours and meetings with county officials, department heads and representatives from staff to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the county and current state of the management, structure and culture and to find opportunities, issues and challenges.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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