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County seeks another bite at administrator apple

Staff writer

Admitting that they made mistakes by not thoroughly planning their own expansion from three members to five, county commissioners took the first steps Monday to try to convince skeptical voters that hiring a county administrator wouldn’t waste taxpayer money.

Voters rejected the idea 1,192 to 962 in a non-binding referendum less than four years ago, but two commissioners who took office since then have been pushing to reconsider.

After a lengthy work session led by commissioners David Mueller and Jonah Goering, other commissioners seemed at least somewhat receptive.

But most cautioned that injecting a new level of administration between commissioners and appointed department heads might be a slow process.

“This is a step for the future,” chairman Randy Dallke said. “That’s how I feel about it. I’ve been somewhat against it, but the biggest thing we need to do is be prepared. Going to five commissioners, we didn’t prepare for that. We want to be onboard with preparation to do this.”

Among the items Dallke cited as demonstrating poor preparation for five commissioners was the sometimes oddly shaped commissioner districts.

The north half of Marion, surrounded by commissioner Dave Crofoot’s district, is attached to Mueller’s district, which otherwise stretches the full width of the county’s northern tier.

Commissioner Kent Becker, who along with Mueller expressed support for hiring only a part-time administrator at the first, admitted the process might pose challenges.

“It’s still a sell to the taxpayers that it’s an investment not an expense,” he said. “You have to create a culture right off the bat with the departments.”

Elected department heads — the county attorney, clerk, treasurer, register of deeds, and sheriff — would not report to an administrator.

Other department heads now meet with commissioners as infrequently as monthly. Under various options outlined by Mueller and Goering, they would have more regular contact with an administrator, who then would meet weekly with commissioners and oversee implementation of commissioners’ policies with the department heads.

“How do you expect some of the department heads to react?” Dallke asked. “They’ve had their own direction for some time, and sometimes they don’t tell us their direction.”

Becker replied: “I’d welcome talking to one person multiple times a week instead of multiple people once a month.

But he admitted the culture of constituents and commissioners might have to change, too.

“I’m always hearing from people in my district things like, ‘You’ve got to come down and look at this ditch,’” he said. “I’m guessing that even if we have a manager or whatever, we may still have some of those calls. I could drive out there and get a perspective on it, but I don’t have the same perspective as those who have to use it.”

An example came up later in the meeting when commissioners discussed, but took no action on, a weakened bridge on 190th Rd. between Chisholm Trail Rd. and K-15.

County engineer Brice Goebel mentioned the bridge and his concerns to commissioners.

A long discussion, in which various commissioners questioned whether they personally had inspected the bridge, ensued.

Mueller compared such situations to management of a petroleum company.

“You’re not having board members out there chasing pipelines,” he said. “We all have full-time jobs, other responsibilities. The management role or administrative role would assist us in making better decisions. The mission gets accomplished more directly.”

It’s doubtful that an administrator would do the equivalent of chasing pipeline, either. Concern seemed to focus on relationships between commissioners and appointed department heads.

“Each department is a business,” Becker said, recounting how a voter asked him: “How do you manage that many businesses?”

Goering’s primary concern, demonstrated by his waving of a thick packet of information prepared for the meeting, appeared to be “reducing the amount of material you have to send to commissioners.”

Most of that material now is assembled by county clerk Tina Spencer.

“It’s not right to just keep assigning these things to Tina,” Mueller said.

“And, honestly,” Dallke interjected, “we have no authority to do that. Tina could just say no.”

County counsel Brad Jantz agreed, adding: “I don’t know of anybody who could handle all those responsibilities unless they’ve got an ‘S’ on their chest.”

Mueller noted that four surrounding counties — Butler, Dickinson, Harvey, and McPherson, all larger — have administrators.

He and Goering provided brief descriptions of how administrator systems work in several other counties.

They never referred to a lengthy list of responsibilities suggested in state statutes allowing administrators to be appointed but suggested instead that Marion County develop its own organization chart and job description.

“The key is finding the right person, and how do we find the right person?” Mueller asked.

Becker agreed.

“You get the right person and it’s going to be great,” he said. “You get the wrong person and, oh my goodness.”

Mueller, who likened the administer position to that of an executive secretary, replied: “You’re going to really need a consultant to get the right person.”

Finding money to pay and office space for the new position and expected support staff — which Mueller suggested might eventually grow to include a financial officer as well as an administrator — would be among other challenges identified by commissioners.

Next step will be to invite representatives from the Kansas County Administrators Association to speak to commissioners.

After a lengthy discussion of whether Spencer or Goering should invite the speaker, Goering was tasked with the responsibility.

State law allows commissioners to adopt an administrator position on their own, without an election, or by submitting the question to a binding referendum.

Commissioners note that no public forums were conducted before the last election. They did not mention a direct mailing that the City of Marion sent to all its residents urging approval of the administrator concept.

Last modified Aug. 11, 2021

 

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