As petitions pass through the hands of community members and opposition to an appointed county auditor-treasurer and recorder grows, Lake County officials are left scrambling to explain their decision to a civic-minded constituency.
On March 18, the Lake County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution to make the county auditor-treasurer and recorder appointed positions. The change was approved at the state level and means the jobs, formerly decided by election, will now be hired by a committee including county officials with final approval by the county board.
County officials say the hiring process will allow them to get the most qualified candidate in the position, rather than the most popular. Opponents say the county is taking away the rights of its citizens to vote and that allowing the board to hire the positions is a consolidation of power.
Matt Huddleston, the administrator for Lake County, said the board just wants to hire a qualified candidate. The county sheriff and attorney, also elected positions, have minimum requirements for candidates to run. The sheriff must be a licensed peace officer and the attorney must have passed the bar exam. There are no such requirements to run for the county auditor-treasurer or recorder.
“The first question we were looking at is … should there be minimum qualifications and standards for the positions?” Huddleston said. “What is the best way to make sure you have a person with those minimum qualifications?”
The auditor-treasurer deals with some of the finances of the county, such as maintaining the official financial records, issuing liquor licenses and collecting delinquent taxes, among other duties. The recorder is responsible for real estate records and other personal records like birth and death certificates. Both offices have a number of other employees who help with day-to-day functions.
The board has said that it was satisfied with the work of Steve McMahon, who was the auditor-treasurer for more than two decades before retiring in March. They have also said that if they were granted the power to hire a recorder, they would keep current recorder Erica Koski in the position for as long as she wants it.
Joe Boettcher was the auditor-treasurer for Le Sueur County in southern Minnesota for more than 20 years. The county recently proposed changing the auditor-treasurer and recorder to appointed positions, and Boettcher was vehemently opposed. The board didn’t end up going through with the change.
Boettcher said there are no qualifications that ensure one is ready to be an auditor-treasurer. Those who are elected go through a training program and he said immersion in the job is the only way to learn.
“I think the (voters) really know who is qualified,” he said. “Most of that education involves working in the office. There is not a public education … process that really qualifies you to be an auditor-treasurer.”
The right to vote
Many of the members of the opposition are concerned with their voting rights. Mitch and Tim Costley, a father and son duo who own the Costley Law Firm in downtown Two Harbors, say the board is taking away a hard-won American right. They drafted a petition opposing the change and are encouraging residents to sign.
"This is a fundamental change in government. The fundamental change in government is taking away people's rights to vote,” Mitch Costley told the News-Chronicle.
Ryan Krosch is the administrator for Nicollet County in southwestern Minnesota. He worked at Yellow Medicine County when it went through the same switch as Lake County. He said there was no opposition to the change in Yellow Medicine and added that constituents still have the opportunity to voice their opinions through the electoral process – they can always cast ballots for commissioners.
“There are still plenty of elected offices to vote on,” Krosch said. “If (constituents) don’t feel the county is being run properly, they can still vote for a county commissioner.”
Boettcher, the retired Le Sueur County auditor-treasurer, said the office would be completely different if it were appointed instead of elected.
“When (the auditor-treasurer is) elected, they have all the authority,” he said. “They will question an expense any place whether it’s a $10 restaurant bill or a $500,000 road construction project. That can all be ignored once they get an appointed process.”
Huddleston said there are checks and balances in place to prevent any abuse of power by the board or an appointed auditor.
“Number one, you have the law. What we’re always trying to do, regardless, is try to have segregation of duties so that multiple people are doing things to try to minimize any chance of wrongdoing at any level,” he said.
He added that the county is audited by the state every year and that any constituent that suspects wrongdoing can ask for an audit.
“It would be no issue for anyone to call the state auditor to come in to look at anything that’s going on,” Huddleston said.
A statewide push
This isn’t the first office to move from elected to appointed, Huddleston said. Across the state, court administrators, highway engineers, assessors and coroners used to be elected but are now hired.
“What the county did 70 years ago to now is different,” he said. “These jobs have changed over time. They are more complex.”
The Minnesota Association of County Auditors is working with the Association of Minnesota Counties to put forth a bill allowing each county to decide whether to appoint or elect the auditor, treasurer and recorder positions. Currently, state representatives have to introduce special legislation to allow individual counties to do so.
“We’re working together,” said Bill Monn, executive director of MACO. “Members of the state legislature said, ‘We really don’t want you guys coming down here and discussing this in front of us on a county-by county-basis.’”
Becca Pryse, a lobbyist for MACO, said the bill, expected to be introduced in 2015, would provide more flexibility for county boards, provide more protections for incumbent officers who were elected by the voters and provide voters with the opportunity to initiate a reverse referendum if they disagree with the county board vote.
Kandiyohi County in western Minnesota was on the same state bill as Lake County. They are doing away with the election process as well as restructuring the offices to be more efficient. Administrator Larry Kleindl said it will improve the customer service for county residents, and that there is a reason almost 80 percent of the state is under elected auditor-treasurers or recorders.
“It hasn’t made a dictatorship of the commissioners who are doing it,” Kleindl said. “What people want is county government and all kinds of government to be efficient.”
Mitch Costley said the right to vote is of the most importance, though.
“We’re a high voter turnout county and people take their right to vote seriously,” he said. “I don't care how you vote. I just want you to be able to vote on it.”
‘It feels personal’
Huddleston said he understands why people would oppose changing some positions from elected to appointed. However, he said the opposition has sometimes seemed focused on something other than the main issue.
“Everybody has their own opinion on it. There’s no right way to do it,” Huddleston said. “What surprises me … is what feels like … it certainly feels personal. I truly just want to try to bring it back to the issue at hand.”
Tim Costley said this issue has brought county government to the forefront and has given residents an outlet to express frustration with the board, whether it’s directly related to the auditor-treasurer and recorder positions or not.
"I think there are a lot of people that are mad about a lot of things that have been going on in the county,” he said. “I think this is the one way now they can finally show that they're not happy."
The Costleys said they are nearly certain they will have the 739 signatures necessary to push the issue to a referendum this fall. If they turn in the petition by May 17, Lake County residents will vote on whether to appoint the auditor-treasurer and recorder on the November ballot.