County board has final meeting before changeover

For four members of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, their last day of service was at the Dec. 24 county board meeting, a 12-minute whistle stop that was conducted primarily to pay the final claims for the 2012 calendar year.
In a process that began early in the year when Commissioners Jack Russek and Elmer Eichelberg announced they would not seek re-election, to the primary loss by Commissioner Dick Mattson in the summer, to the defeat of Commissioner Rose Thelen to fellow Commissioner Pat Sawatzke in November, the Dec. 24 meeting officially marked the end of an era.
Thelen, who spent four years on a county board that had three members with 20 or more years of experience and another with 14 said she hopes that she brought a new voice to the county board that will continue with the transition of the four new county commissioners in January.
“I think it will be a good thing to have change on the board,” Thelen said. “When you have a board that has largely remained the same for 20 years, it can get a little set in its ways. The new commissioners are enthusiastic and have a wide array of experience that should help the board create a new direction.”
Thelen said she was at times frustrated by the “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset that some of the veteran commissioners had to board policy, adding that, with so many new members, the new board will evolve on its own in its vital task of overseeing the county’s finances.
“There was some resistance to change because things had been done the same way for years,” Thelen said. “There is no manual on being a county commissioner. It’s going to be a learning process. The broader their base of information they get these next few months, the more knowledgeable they will get. This is an important job. County government is the biggest organization we have in Wright County. It has a $100 million budget and 700 employees. I think the best thing about the new board is that they’re geared up for change. Things are going to change and won’t be the same old, same old around here.”
Commissioner Pat Sawatzke, who had a similar experience in 1993 when he was the only carryover commissioner when four new board members took office, believes the learning curve for the new commissioners will be pronounced, but that they will catch on quickly in the areas that will be their early focus with committee assignments.
“The new commissioners will have a lot of questions coming in,” Sawatzke said. “There are things that will come up on agendas that didn’t take long in the past because the commissioners were familiar with the process. The new members will have to learn how and why some items come before the county board and the implications of approving or denying requests.”
Sawatzke said that when he came to the county board in 1991, there were four veteran commissioners in place and he was often seen but not heard in those early meetings in his first term. With the massive turnover of the county board in 2013, there won’t be time for that.
“With four new commissioners, they will be deciding the issues that face the county,” Sawatzke said.  “In my case, I was often the fifth vote on issues that my vote didn’t really matter in terms of whether it passed or not. There will have to be a lot of communication this time around.”
The new commissioners will have a whirlwind of activity early on as they acclimate themselves to the job and the employees.
They will meet with the new commissioners to introduce themselves and give them an overview of what their departments do for the county.
Sawatkze believes January will be a long month for the incoming commissioners, but that it’s all part of the process for any new commissioner.
“(County Coordinator) Dick Norman and I will likely be helping them along the most when they have questions or concerns,” Sawatzke said.
“We’re all going to have to work together while they learn the ins and outs of the job. It may take some time, but we’ve had to go through sweeping change before and we did fine. County government will continue to run regardless of who is on the county board. As long as we work together, we’ll be fine.”
In the items on the abbreviated Dec. 24 agenda, the board:
• Approved the final list of claims for 2012. Any bills received by the county over the final week of the year will be paid at the first board meeting of 2013 (Jan. 8).
• Approved the 2013 non-union salary schedule for employees not affiliated with a union bargaining unit.
• Accepted quotes for health insurance premiums, effective March 1.
• Approved interest rates for 2012 county ditch assessments. When ditch assessments are significant, residents have the option of making one lump-sum payment or agreeing to a payment plan with interest over time.
• Gave final acceptance to the contract for the CSAH 75 realignment project with R.L. Larson Excavating of St. Cloud and authorized the final payment of $91,324 to close out the contract.
• Authorized the Employee Wellness Committee to sponsor a pair of two-session after-hours yoga classes – one scheduled for Jan. 3 and Feb. 7 and the other scheduled for Feb. 21 and March 28) at the gymnasium in the old county jail.

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.