The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 31, 2013

Le Sueur County mulls move to appointment

Auditor-treasurer now elected

By Dan Linehan

---- — LE CENTER — The Le Sueur County Board is considering turning its elected auditor-treasurer into an appointed position.

County Administrator Darrell Pettis said the timing is good to consider the change because the previous auditor-treasurer resigned earlier this year.

“It’s the time to look at it and make a decision,” he said. “I’m giving information to the board, not campaigning either way.”

The position, which is responsible for the county’s finances, elections and licensing, was created in 2010 when the treasurer and auditor positions were merged. Both were previously elected.

Like most counties, Le Sueur has a mix of elected and appointed officials. In this case, voters pick the sheriff, county attorney, auditor-treasurer, recorder and surveyor. If the auditor-treasurer becomes an appointed position, the appointee would be chosen by the County Board and supervised by the county administrator.

The interim auditor-treasurer, Pam Simonette, supports the change to an appointed position.

“For a position like auditor-treasurer, you need somebody in here who’s qualified,” she said.

Unlike for would-be county sheriffs or attorneys, no licensing requirements exist to become an auditor-treasurer.

“Anybody who has $50 off the street isn’t necessarily the best qualified candidate,” said Simonette, who has worked at the county for 28 years.

Though the position is something of a mishmash of duties — operating the license center and administering elections, for example, seem to have little in common — it does call for financial expertise.

In 2012, the county collected $57 million, made payments of $61 million and handled about $13 million in investments.

Le Center resident Joe Boettcher, the previous auditor-treasurer, thinks voters can be trusted to pick a good candidate.

“The county I want to live in is the county that I can go up to the county offices and I know there’s going to be someone in that elected position that I can go to, that I hired as a voter, and say I’ve got a concern,” he said.

While an elected auditor-treasurer would likely be able to hear concerns, too, Boettcher said the difference is that an appointed official is beholden to a boss.

Though the County Board set his office’s salary, “I really thought the only boss I had was the voting public,” he said.

That distinction would become important if, say, an auditor-treasurer found problems in a county’s finances and wanted to tell the public. If he or she were worried about criticizing their boss — the county administrator in a day-to-day sense — an appointed official might think twice before telling the public.

“Where, if you’re elected by the countywide electorate, you have some autonomy,” he said.

This change requires a four-fifths majority of the County Board, and at least one commissioner, Lance Wetzel, opposes the change.

He said that, of the 11 people who spoke at a public hearing last month, nine opposed the change to an appointed position and two supported it.

"Why take more away from the people," Wetzel said. "We've already lost enough say on many things."

It also requires a change in law, which has to pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor. Pettis said five such bills are being considered next session for various counties. He said 28 counties statewide have an appointed auditor-treasurer, and the trend is that more are being appointed.

The County Board will consider the change during its meeting Tuesday, which begins at 9 a.m. in the Le Sueur County Courthouse.

Though the measure must be approved by four of five commissioners to take effect, the board is deciding Tuesday whether to seek legislative authority for the change. That vote merely directs staff to work toward getting a bill approved, though the four-fifths requirement would kick in during a final vote next spring. It’s not clear if the board would seek a law change if it doesn’t have four votes.

Even if the law passes and is approved by the County Board, state law allows county residents to put the measure on the ballot. Supporters of a vote would need a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters, Pettis said.