Kelsey Baker chosen as the next Kandiyohi County administrator
Following a months-long application process and an intense day of interviews Tuesday, Kelsey Baker was named the Kandiyohi County Board's choice for the county's next administrator. For the past five years, Baker has served as the administrator for Swift County, and it was that experience that put Baker above the other two finalists.
WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County Board knew choosing a new county administrator would be difficult, and probably one of the most important decisions they would make.
Following a months-long search and a day full of meet and greets and interviews, the board unanimously voted Tuesday to offer the top administrative job in the county to Kelsey Baker.
Baker has served as the county administrator in Swift County for five years, and it was that experience that put her ahead of the other two candidates.
"We had three great candidates. It was a lot tougher job than we thought it would be," said Commissioner Corky Berg, board chair. "I am very excited for the new person coming aboard."
Prior to working as Swift County administrator, Baker worked for one year as the executive director for The Legends at Heritage Place, an assisted living facility in Sartell. She also worked for the state of South Dakota as a marketing and communications specialist for three years and as a public information officer for one year.
She earned her bachelor's degree in public relations/advertising and management communications from North Dakota State University, and an executive master's degree in public administration from the University of South Dakota. She told the board that she learned about various modes of communication during her schooling, which are skills she felt would help her in Kandiyohi County.
During her interview, Baker answered a series of questions on topics ranging from her leadership style to the importance of relationship building and her experience in county administrator tasks such as budgeting.
Baker called her leadership style "servant leadership," which means the leader aims to serve those that work under them.
"I want to provide the best tools, resources and guidance ... to the staff. That not only makes my job easier — your jobs easier — it gives the staff the appreciation and the confidence to do their jobs even better," Baker said.
Another important aspect of Baker's leadership philosophy is building relationships between the administrator, staff and member of the county board. Having good relationships between the different departments is also important to the commissioners.
"Getting to know each person on a professional level and as much as we can on a personal level, as much as we are both willing to give, that builds communication, trust and different types of relationships," Baker said.
Baker said she likes to engage staff by asking their opinions and working to come to an agreement on how to execute plans and programs. She has several years of experience creating countywide budgets, and also understands it is sometimes the administrator's job to make unpopular decisions.
"There are lot of times I think people truly don't even know what a county administrator does, what they have to deal with and how many hats you have to wear," Baker said.
The top challenge Kandiyohi County faces, as do counties in general, is finding and keeping a workforce.
"It is tough to hire employees right now. You are seeing a lot of generational differences on how people work," Baker said.
Another challenge is providing equity in the county. In Swift County, there has been a start to that kind of work; Baker said, while it can be a challenge, she definitely feels like it is possible to bring equity and inclusion into a rural county.
A good first step might be to start an equity and inclusion committee to see how Kandiyohi County can approach it.
"There are absolutely things we can do," Baker said. "Are we providing fair and equitable services to everyone in the county and what does that look like?"
Baker said she is aware coming from a smaller county like Swift to the larger and more diverse Kandiyohi County will be full of challenges. She understands that changing administration can be difficult.
"There is an uneasiness that comes with that, an uncertainty that comes with that," Baker said. "That could be a challenge."
However, those are challenges she is looking forward to meeting and overcoming.
"Not only is my passion in it, my heart is in it, I have a drive for this kind of position," Baker said. "I wouldn't be applying for this same exact position if I hated the job in Swift County. I do truly love this type of work."
The Kandiyohi County Board also interviewed Cassandra Harvey, program manager — Healthy Aging & Caregiver Supports for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation; and Jennifer Lippert, the director of Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services.
Liza Donabauer from DDA Human Resources shared the feedback from the staff meet-and-greet and from the interviews held between the candidates and department leadership.
According to some of that feedback, Baker was seen as experienced, self-assured, very direct and strong-willed. There was some concern about her moving to a larger county, but her passion for government was seen as a strength.
Commissioner Roger Imdieke said all three candidates had both strengths and weaknesses, and would have brought good things to the county.
"Thanks to all the candidates, all the staff, all the departments that helped us through this process," Imdieke said, adding that Donabauer was also a huge help. "You did a very nice job leading us through this, keeping us on track and keeping us out of trouble."
The next step is for a three-member committee to negotiate an employment offer with Baker. The hiring won't be official until Baker agrees to the offer and the County Board approves it.
Current County Administrator Larry Kliendl is set to retire in February, so there will be time for Baker to shadow him and get her feet under her before officially taking over.
"Hopefully we can have a smooth transition," said Commissioner Duane Anderson.