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Chippewa County takes on challenge of public vote on appointing two offices

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Chippewa County Auditor/Treasurer Jon Clauson responds to questions at the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners meeting on Nov. 21. The commissioners will be interviewing candidates to succeed Clauson, who is retiring, and are asking voters to make his and the county recorder positions appointed rather than elected.

MONTEVIDEO — The Chippewa County Board of Commissioners is asking voters to decide whether or not to make the county auditor/treasurer and recorder positions appointed rather than elected.

That puts the onus squarely on the commissioners to let people know why they want the change. Many of the state's counties have sought special legislation to make the change, rather than putting the issue to voters, according to Matt Hilgart, who works in government relations for the Minnesota Association of Counties.

"Referendums have a tough time happening,'' Hilgart told the Chippewa County Board at its meeting Nov. 21 in Montevideo.

He urged the commissioners to be transparent on the issue, and do all they can to engage voters in a discussion on why they want to make the positions appointed. He said there are plenty of cases where voters rejected the change. The "backfire" tends to be in those cases where the boards have not included the public in the discussion, he said.

The commissioners are currently accepting applications for an interim auditor/treasurer, and will be interviewing candidates in early December. County Auditor/Treasurer Jon Clauson is retiring Feb. 28 after a 43-year career with the county.

A special, mail ballot election will be held Feb. 13 on the request to make the auditor/treasurer and recorder positions appointed.

The state's metropolitan and suburban counties have long held the authority to appoint the auditor/treasurer and recorder. Increasingly, rural counties are obtaining the same authority, according to Hilgart. Many see it as an opportunity to improve efficiency and modernize county operations, as well as save staff costs.

But most of all, it's a desire to assure that the county has people with the needed aptitude and skills for the demands of these jobs, said Hilgart. "The skills needed for these jobs are increasingly demanding and technical,'' he said.

The commissioners said that is exactly their motivation. They want to assure that a successor to Clausen brings the right skills to the job. Commissioner Jeffrey Lopez said he and his fellow commissioners often hear from constituents who voice their confidence in the way things are handled in the county, and the auditor/treasurer's knowledge.

Chairman Jim Dahlvang said that one of the concerns he has heard is that if the position remains an elected one, someone with a popular name but lacking the skills or motivation needed for the job could be elected.

But overall, the commissioners said they have not heard a lot of feedback to the recent decision to call for a special election on the issue. Lopez suggested the commissioners hold a public forum on the issue to open discussion and inform voters.

Dahlvang noted the challenge ahead. "This will not pass if we don't educate the public,'' he said.

The commissioners said they would also like to get a sense of what voters are thinking prior to the election. They indicated that they would like to select an interim auditor/treasurer by the start of next year, and give that person an opportunity to work alongside Clausen for a few weeks.

The interim auditor/treasurer would serve the remainder of Clausen's term, or through 2018. If voters approve making it an appointed position, the successful candidate could be appointed to continue in that role. If voters reject the measure, the position would be up for election in November 2018 and the interim auditor/treasurer could be out of a job at year's end.

Amy Rodeberg is currently serving as county recorder. She was elected to her first term in 2014.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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