Group pressures commissioners to meet in evening to allow for more public participation

While open access to county government was the hot topic during the regular meeting of the Itasca County Board this week, the time allotted for citizen input was shut down after it started to get disruptive.

About a year ago, John Casper first presented his concerns of transparency to commissioners and proposed the board establish a public forum period during board meetings. He continued to push his proposal as he felt commissioners’ constituents should be allowed to address their elected officials to give information or question information discussed at the board level. In March the board took action to create a citizen input period during meetings to take place prior to approval of the agenda. Stipulations pertaining to this period state that comments must be informational in nature, pertain to the published agenda and not exceed three minutes in length per person. It is also made clear that the county board generally will not engage in a discussion or debate but will take the information under advisement.

Casper was the first of a handful of people who approached the podium at the opening of the board’s Nov. 26 meeting. All spoke of an agenda item to set the 2020 schedule of Itasca County Board meetings. Their collective concern was the timing of the meetings. For years, the board has held regular meetings at 2:30 p.m. in the county boardroom. Casper and the others believe this time slot makes it difficult for citizens to leave work and attend the meetings. They urged commissioners to consider a time later in the afternoon or early evening.

Itasca County Auditor/Treasurer Jeff Walker joined the discussion to remind commissioners that meetings are held at 2:30 p.m., to allow county employees to be available to provide information to the board, if needed, during their regular working hours. He said holding meetings later would mean employees would need to be paid overtime which would affect department budgets.

You need to think outside the box like we do in the private sector,” countered Casper taking another turn at the podium. “I think (county employees) could adjust their schedules four times a month. They happen to work for a business where it’s necessary - like at hospitals, nursing homes. Think like the real world.”

Itasca County Sheriff Vic Williams concurred with Walker, that the 2:30 p.m. time is the set time for the board to carry out county business.

“I know that night-time attendance isn’t any better,” said Williams who has many years of experience participating in meetings of city councils, school boards and townships. “If someone has an issue to make known, they will make that time.”

Williams also noted that “it’s not the constituency that’s beating you up, it’s the same small group every time; the phone calls come from the same people.”

When Casper started to offer input yet again, Board Chair Davin Tinquist asked him to refrain - even knocking the gavel - as sheriff’s deputies directed Casper to his seat.

“This is a prime example of when we installed citizen input and were worried it would occupy our time,” said Tinquist opening up the meeting to the board’s agenda.

Commissioner Terry Snyder asked to pull adoption of the 2020 schedule of meetings from the list of routine non-controversial actions on the Consent Agenda to the Regular Agenda for separate discussion. After more than an hour of board action and several reports and presentations later, commissioners took up the issue of meeting times.

“If it is the board’s position to be as transparent as possible, I think it is reasonable to try to find a compromise,” began Snyder. “I do understand the imposition it poses our employees.”

Snyder said he would support moving from 2:30 to 4 p.m., even though it would make it difficult for him to attend a township meeting that also meets on Tuesday evenings.

Commissioner Leo Trunt said he would like to see a survey of other Minnesota counties and times when their boards meet.

“I think most meet in the morning, like we used to at 9 a.m.,” explained Trunt who said he thought a 4 p.m. meeting could work.

Chair Tinquist pointed out that those who spoke during citizen input did not stay to take in the rest of the meeting. He continued to explain that several years ago, commissioners tried to bring the meetings to remote areas of the county at later times but those evening meetings had very poor attendance.

“It was a complete flop,” said Tinquist.

As the chair explained, many people look to ICTV to watch board proceedings which are aired live and later available to stream on demand or watch on cable television.

Commissioner Ben DeNucci said he has not heard from any of his constituents about concerns regarding meeting times.

“I think this is the time that has been set to accomplish the business of the board,” said DeNucci. “I, too, try to get out and attend township meetings and I wouldn’t be able to if it changed.”

“Part of the way county government is designed is [constituents] have you as their representatives,” added Auditor/Treasurer Walker, referring to the duty of commissioners to bring the issues of their districts to the board table.

“Also, we all have jobs we’re walking away from for county government,” continued Chair Tinquist who said he often misses 20 hours a week of work to serve the county. “I personally take offense to those comments that we don’t consider the compromise” people need to make to attend meetings.

Out of his 9,000 constituents in his district, Commissioner Trunt said he had only received one complaint about the meeting time.

“Me too, out of 9,000, I only had one,” said Commissioner Burl Ives who would not like to see moving the regular board meetings throughout the county - aside from the new Jail Committee meetings to be held at various locations in coming months - but he would “be OK” with changing the time to 4 p.m.

“It makes me scratch my head that four citizens out of 40,000 can come to a meeting and cause this discussion,” commented Commissioner DeNucci who said, in his mind, “that’s not enough push of support to facilitate change.”

County Administration reminded the board that the meeting schedule for 2020 must be set by the end of the year to allow for it to be published. Commissioner Ives made a motion to table action on the schedule to the Dec. 17 meeting and it was approved.

In other business Tuesday, Nov. 25, the board:

• Recognized county employees Matt Alstad who was promoted to controller IMCare Division effective Nov. 17; and Noel Danielson who resigned from her position as managed care nurse IMCare Division after six months of service.

• Approved commissioner warrants with a check date of Nov. 27, 2019 in the amount of $957,711.96.

• Approved Itasca County Health and Human Services warrants for November 2019 totaling $1,223,121.46

• Scheduled bi-monthly meetings of the new Jail Committee for Thursdays, starting Dec. 5 and Dec. 19 beginning at 7 p.m. The December meetings will be held in the courthouse boardroom.

• Heard an update from Health and Human Services Director Eric who provided an update on out of home placements, his attendance of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Homeless Shelter Open House, and reminded the County Board and public regarding the Grace House ‘Home is Where the Heart is’ Fundraiser being held from 5-10 p.m. on December 5, 2019 at the Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids.

• Heard an update on County Based Purchasing (IMCare) including information regarding claims received and processed.

• Received an update on the MIS Department from Information Systems Manager Candy Carsella-Kee.

• Approved a change in fees for online purchases of Torrens Certificates of Title, meaning that the fee for all copies purchased online would be the same whether it be a recorded document copy or Torrens Certificate of Title and current fees would remain the same for document copies purchased at the Recorder’s Office ($1/per page of recorded documents and $5/per Certificate of Title).

• Heard an update from County Engineer Karin Grandia on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Transition Plan for public rights of way.

• Heard a presentation on the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC) Career Pathways Program from program director Claire Peterlin who shared how area schools are working with higher education and local industry to address workforce needs.

• Received an update on Itasca Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) from IEDC President and CEO Tamara Lowney who shared IEDC’s goals for 2020.

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