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Becker County cries foul over 4-H hiring process

Action by officials with the University of Minnesota Extension Service has made Becker County commissioners so angry that they are withholding payment for the newly hired 4-H coordinator position.

But state 4-H director says the university did nothing wrong, followed the proper procedures and hired the same way it always hires Extension employees.

The country pays for the 4-H position, but the coordinator is a state employee and is paid by the state.

Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson said district Extension officials essentially walked all over the county's search committee, thumbed their noses at established procedure -- wasted hours of his and everybody else's time -- then just hired who they wanted.

He said he is sorry that the new 4-H coordinator, Kari Hendrickx, has been caught in the middle of the fight. She was one of the finalists and is qualified for the job, he said.

But the interference from regional Extension officials was unprecedented in the case, he said.

"They took two people off (the county search committee) and added two people," he said. "That someone from Moorhead (the district Extension office) changed our search committee is bizarre."

After Nelson called regional Extension director Deb Zak to complain, the two county members were put back on the search committee, but the two new Extension members also stayed on.

(He said Zak has always been good to work with, follows procedures, and did in this case too).

But other Extension employees on the search committee and the county members clashed throughout the process, Nelson said, to the point that he suggested starting over with neutral parties because there was so much bad blood.

At one point, he said, Ellie McCann, regional 4-H program director in Moorhead said, "send me your top picks, I'll decide who we hire," Nelson said.

He told her that was not acceptable, that it was the responsibility of the search committee to choose the top candidate.

"It says in the contract that 'Becker will hire with the involvement of the Extension committee,'" Nelson said.

"That's why I made the motion to suspend all pay to the university, because they broke the contract," he added.

The motion was approved by the county board unanimously on Tuesday.

Nelson sits on the county's Extension committee (along with Commissioner Don Skarie) and also served on the search committee.

He was especially upset with Tamie Bremseth, a regional Extension employee who serves as director of Youth Development Operations.

The search committee put in hours of work reading and sorting through resumes from 17 applicants, then spending eight hours interviewing four finalists for the job.

At that point, Nelson said, Bremseth refused to complete the process and later refused to accept a recommendation from the search committee, saying, "I will not allow it."

Nelson said he was so angry and upset with Bremseth that he couldn't sleep that night.

A few days later, Nelson learned through the media that the new Becker County 4-H coordinator had been hired.

Bremseth declined comment Wednesday morning. McCann was in a meeting and did not return a phone message left Wednesday morning.

Dorothy McCargo Freeman, associate dean and state 4-H director, said the proper hiring procedure was followed.

"The university brings in applicants, they are reviewed by the search committee, who are then asked to submit some of their preferences, based on (the applicants') strengths and weaknesses," she said. After three or four finalists are selected and interviewed by the search committee, the university decides who to hire, she said.

"We have to make the decision on the hire, we are held responsible to that," she said. "The way the search committee normally works (after the search committee decides on three or four finalists) I make the decision on who meets the need," she said. "We believe we have followed our practices. We believe the University of Minnesota is held responsible for whoever is hired."

The situation was especially frustrating for Nelson because he is a stickler for process and following the rules, and said he has been through the Extension hiring process several times without incident.

The search committee goes through the applicants, discusses them and agrees on finalists to be interviewed, and talks about the county's need for the position -- and which finalist would be the best fit.

There is always some concern by commissioners that the 4-H coordinator should focus on Becker County -- not be sent off to other areas.

"The question is what does Becker County need? What are we looking for?" Nelson said. "We don't care if this person fits the regional needs of Extension."

The county pays 100 percent of the cost for the position -- $65,550 this year for salary and fringe benefits, travel, training and enhanced programming, as well as payroll and accounting services. Probably about half of that goes toward actual salary, Nelson said.

Because the county is footing the entire bill, it should have had the final say, but Extension officials fought the county every step of the way, Nelson said.

"We're upset with the process," he said at the County Board meeting Tuesday. "We don't want any other counties to go through what we went through. I spent, minimal, 20 hours on this and someone from Extension made the (final) decision without any input."

The county board is now waiting for acknowledgement from the Extension Service that what they did was wrong, Nelson said.

"To keep 4-H and the university strong, you can't do this or the whole partnership will fail," he said.

"We are disappointed that the process is in question," said McCargo Freeman. "We will continue to work with the Extension committee and the Becker County Board in trying to resolve this issue. We believe the 4-H program is important to the young people of the county."

Nelson said commissioners will talk to the Association of Minnesota Counties about pushing for legislative changes to make 4-H coordinators county employees, not state employees.

The 4-H coordinator position became open after Mickey Okeson left to pursue other interests.

It had been a part-time position, and commissioners decided to increase it to a full-time position, in part because they were so pleased with Okeson's work.