Pine County is currently seeking special legislation which would allow the county board to select the county auditor/treasurer instead of keeping the position elected.
The bill, SF 592, authored by state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, and HF 655 by state Rep. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, will give, via legislation and not a county-wide vote, the authorization to the Pine County Board of Commissioners to appoint someone they see fit for the office of county auditor/treasurer. The office would no longer be an elected position chosen by the voters.
Arguably, the county auditor/treasurer position holds the most authority in the county when it comes to finances. The person in this position, currently Cathy Clemmer who is planning to retire at the end of her term in 2018, holds the pocketbook of the county and has traditionally been autonomous from the county board and other appointed and elected officials, helping create accountability in county spending without fear of negative county board action in regard to the position.
Last November, Kanabec County asked voters whether to allow the appointment of the county auditor/treasurer by the county board or continue to allow the voters to decide who would fill that position. This proposal failed with 42 percent voting yes, and 58 percent voting no, and Kanabec County will continue to have an elected position.
Last June during a county board meeting, the commissioners pitched the special legislation proposal to area state legislators saying they were considering such a proposal.
Both Rep. Rarick and Sen. Lourey were at a county board meeting, in which the board asked for support of the special legislation. Both said they might not be able to support the proposed legislation.
“There are a number of people who don’t want to take that right away,” Rarick said at the time.
“Elections are real important,” added Lourey, who said he was not ready to give his support of the legislation at the meeting.
Why choose special
legislation to fill Clemmer’s shoes?
Maybe because they can. The state Legislature has given this option to the counties in Minnesota.
Cathy Clemmer is in favor of appointing the position though she admits there have been times when it has been beneficial to be on equal footing with other elected officials on budget matters.
When asked why the position wasn’t brought before the voters by the county board, similar to Kanabec County, Clemmer felt it would be very difficult to adequately inform voters on the level of qualifications that need to go along with this position.
The auditor/treasurer position is the only elected position within the county that doesn’t require some sort of qualification. The sheriff needs to be a peace officer, and the county attorney needs to be a licensed attorney.
Clemmer primarily supports having an appointment because of the intricacies of the job. “I was brought up in the job and learned it over the many years of being on staff,” said Clemmer. “Ideally, we would have someone qualified and willing from within that could step into the election, but many of our people live out-of-county.”
Pine County Administrator David Minke stated his reasoning for support of the legislation. “Many local offices have been elected that are now appointed. City clerks, for example, in the standard plan cities, is still an elected position, but most cities have transitioned to a statutory type A or B city or a charter city where there is an appointed city clerk.
“At one time, additional county offices were elected such as county surveyors and county coroners were elected. I think the law is intended to provide some flexibility and recognize that the same structure that worked in 1920 or 1950 or 1980 may not work the same way today.”
Minke stated that 23 of the 87 counties have pursued special legislation for the appointment of their auditor/treasurer. These counties, he stated, are larger population counties.
“As the job duties have gotten more technical and complicated, fewer people with the professional experience and training are interested in running for an elective office,” he added. “I think Cathy represents a tradition that is becoming less common. She worked her way up over about 28 years with the county, serving for about the last 10 as the auditor.”
Minke also stated that in addition to the Pine County bill, the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee also has a hearing for HF 534, a bill that would give all counties the authority to appoint the offices of auditor, treasurer and recorder.
“At first glance, it seems as though you are taking away a privilege from people, but as you peel back the layers, I don’t see it that way,” said County Commissioner Steve Hallan of Pine City, weighing in on the topic.
“The position has changed, the requirements have changed, and the systems of checks and balances have changed. The accounting system that is now in place is a much scrutinized system that many, many folks look at daily and yearly to assure that all funds are accounted for and charged to the correct account.
“The layers of audits that follow any state and federal money, which is about 60 percent of our yearly budget, are incredible. The job has become much more technical in nature and not policy changing. I don’t believe auditor/treasurers need to be elected to be effective,” said Hallan.
Sen. Lourey said he is authoring the Pine County bill to foster a conversation. “There are over 20 counties in Minnesota (mostly urban) that have already made this change, and they seem quite pleased with it. A critical part of the legislation is a required public process before the board passes a resolution to implement the change,” said Lourey. “Also, if the public is concerned with the change, they can petition for a county-wide vote to either approve the change or deny the change.”
The public process involved comes after the bill becomes a law. According to the bill’s language, within 60 days after the Pine County Board adopts the resolution to appoint an auditor/treasurer by 80 percent of the board members, a petition requesting a referendum must be presented. If the petition is sufficient, containing 10 percent of Pine County voters and meets requirements outlined by the Secretary of State, the question of appointing the county auditor/treasurer must be placed on the ballot at a regular or special election. If the majority of voters vote in favor of an appointment, the resolution may be implemented.
Also, part of the public process in the bill’s language is the requirement to allow public comment at a regular meeting with the board acting on the resolution after the public comment time or at a subsequent meeting.
“There are certainly trade-offs associated with either option, and I look forward to the conversation,” added Lourey.
Rep. Rarick could not be reached for comment.