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County personnel to take M State class

Fifteen Hubbard County personnel will begin classes at M State Jan. 19 in leadership and "lean thinking."

It is the county's first step toward a goal of amalgamating county functions and personnel to deliver better services to the public.

The county board authorized the tuition payment of $5,175 to have an instructor come to the county each Thursday for three hours to conduct classes in leadership principles using "continuous improvement tools." The course will last nine weeks.

But the county's goal of doing business "not as usual" apparently isn't sitting well with employees.

Coordinator Debbie Thompson and commissioner Kathy Grell reported back from a recent department head meeting in which they were peppered with resentment from employees who accused them of doing a poor job of communicating the changes to the rank and file.

"They're reading what's happening in the papers," the women reported to the board.

Commissioner Lyle Robinson theorized it was "inner resentment of change" that was fueling the discontent.

But Thompson and Grell said the employees want to be involved in the proposed changes early on in the process.

They suggested communicating through an intranet system or putting out a suggestion box to solicit efficiency suggestions.

All 11 department heads will attend the classes, along with the sheriff and county attorney, who both reluctantly said they'd try to fit classes into their busy schedules. Both said they would have to miss some of the classes and offered to send a subordinate.

"And what are you going to do when your chief deputy comes back from class and tells you how to run your department?" Robinson asked Sheriff Cory Aukes.

Nervous laughter followed.

Board members don't want department heads to get used to the idea of skipping classes and sending in a sub because they want each manager invested in the global concept of change, then to communicate class principles down through the ranks.

Two commissioners, likely new board chair Dick Devine and Kathy Grell, will also attend the classes. The purchase of services agreement is premised on enrolling 15 in the classes at a cost of $345 per pupil.

But the board nevertheless debated how much information should be communicated to employees in the fledgling stages of the mission to revamp government.

Some recalled the same resentment and uncertainty prevailed a decade ago when the board consolidated several departments into what is now called Public Works, with one supervisor, county engineer Dave Olsonawski.

The restructuring has worked well, Robinson said.

"We have 11 or 12 that have hired their own employees," Robinson said, referring to the department heads. "This is an area where the departments that have already done it will say it's no big deal. I'm not sure it's our job to go around to the departments and tell them what they need to know," he added.

"They need a couple sentence statement to let them know what we're doing," Grell said. A Park Rapids businesswoman, Grell has been at the forefront of the move to run government in a more businesslike manner.

She suggested that "one stop shopping" is simply a goal and each department should be challenged by the mission of how to accomplish that end product.

Board member Cal Johannsen said it's difficult to communicate the new mantra to all employees when "we don't know what we're doing."

"They need reassurance we're not aiming at them," Devine said. "We're aiming at a product."

Johannsen reiterated that no jobs will be lost in the consolidation of duties, but retirements won't automatically be filled.

"Cross training should benefit me as an employee," Robinson noted.

Devine suggested having "a couple commissioners come in and meet informally with employees."

"If it's really a concern they can call us," Robinson objected.

"It's not a complicated thing," Devine said. "They just need reassurance."

And Devine questioned whether the board should interrupt the chain of command to communicate directly with employees.

The board envisions all of the first floor offices functioning as one, with a single floor supervisor instead of separate department heads.

In other business, the board:

n Encouraged Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf to schedule an informational session with the county's outside legal counsel that is part of the retainer agreement.

Buitenwerf said he hadn't done that because he was trying to keep the county's premiums down. But commissioners objected, saying it is part of the overall legal services the county pays for, and the point is to head off potential lawsuits.

The county board, Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment all have the potential to be sued, board members noted. In fact, the county and variance board are currently being sued in a case that is headed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

"We want to educate them to avoid a claim," Robinson said of the board members.

Buitenwerf said all planning and variance board members get some form of education after their appointments, but the rest is up to each individual to conduct him or herself accordingly.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink," he said.

Commissioners suggested getting professional recommendations of how to conduct meetings and what types of information to accept as exhibits at public hearings.

n Congratulated assistant county engineer Jed Nordin on passing his test to become a licensed Professional Engineer.

Nordin passed the grueling eight-hour exam, which can only be taken after four years of experience with a Professional Engineer. Nordin has been with Hubbard County nearly five years.

n Scheduled the next timber auction for Jan. 17 at 10 a.m. in the Public Works building. Twenty-one tracts of forest will be auctioned off. The county holds three timber auctions annually.

n Scheduled a work session Jan. 11 to open a dozen proposals for utilizing the space above the county jail for office use. The board has proposed to move the overcrowded Social Services Department into that space, freeing up offices in the county office building for other deparments.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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