County tries to eliminate position
Friday, January 24, 2014 6:00 PM
MENOMINEE - An obscure one-item agenda for a specially called meeting of the Menominee County Board of Commissioners is bizarre enough.
But add to the mix that among those missing from the meeting are the county administrator and one commissioner; that no one calling the meeting wanted to define what the meeting was about; and that some members of the public knew more about what was going to be discussed than some of the commissioners and you have a formula for a true comedy of errors that cost taxpayers more than $500 to see.
The meeting was requested by Commissioner Jan Hafeman and County Board Chairman Charlie Meintz Thursday, just one day after the board had held another special meeting about staffing at the sheriff's department.
The purpose of the meeting: "is to discuss and/or act on the administrator assistant position."
The meeting was posted, commissioners, the media and public were notified. Meintz and Hafeman were no more specific about what was to be discussed or acted upon than what was in the request.
So people speculated. Was it a disciplinary hearing? Was it a firing? Why not wait until County Administrator Brian Bousley, who is off for personal reasons, would be back at work? Or, why not wait until Tuesday, when the county board holds its regularly scheduled second meeting of the month and Commissioner James Furlong also returns from vacation?
The answer came during public comment.
After Brian Neumeier, former Menominee County administrator, cautioned the board against taking any disciplinary actions contrary to board rules and personnel policies, he added that questions about the legality of calling a special meeting at all, "since there is no financial crisis to necessitate calling this meeting."
Bob Desjarlais, a frequent attendee at county board meetings and a member of the county's park and recreation committee, said "I believe today we are not talking about disciplining an employee, but discussing the position," he said, going on to provide background that he said began in the redistricting process that created a nine-member board - with the intention, according to Desjarlais, of making commissioners more hands-on and having the "board chairman in a of a management position." That would create a reduction in staffing in the administration office.
"The public wanted less administration," Desjarlais said.
John Anderson, another regular attendee, added that the subject of cutting administration costs had been discussed at Republican party meetings, as well.
Sheriff Kenny Marks provided a photograph of the infamous McDonald Gangs' hanging in Menominee in 1881, and likened what had happened then was happening Friday. After telling the tale, he asked "Who is the lynch mob today?"
Hafeman's reason for calling the meeting, she said, came after the redistricting was completed. "The idea was to reduce the size of administration and put more power in the hands of the county commissioners. We've had a year to get our feet wet ... and we know what the county commissioner job is all about."
Commissioner Chris Plutchak said there were 45-55 people at those meetings when it was discussed. "It was common consensus," he said of the need to cut administrative costs.
Those meetings were held in the spring of 2011.
Commissioner Bernie Lang, who questioned the call for the special meeting and seconded a failed motion from Commissioner Larry Schei to seek legal counsel before the board would act on any changes to the position, told Plutchak and Hafeman, "I think you guys are all rewriting history. I never heard about reducing (administrative) staff."
Lang asked for more explanation.
"I'd like to know exactly why we are here," he said. "Why are we here? To discipline (the administrative assistant) or for financial reasons? What's our goal with this?
Meintz said the board was there to determine "how viable the position is. It doesn't have anything to do with discipline of an employee. I think, with a nine-member board, our administration is much heavier than it needs to be."
Commissioner John Nelson, chairman of the finance committee, supplied the numbers Plutchak had requested on what the current administrative assistant makes. He said it was $43,000 a year, and "about $72,000 with the rest of it."
Nelson started a side argument with Lang about the legality of the meeting, saying that the Open Meetings Act didn't require any specific language in the posting. Lang told him the guidelines come from Robert's Rules of Order, which has been incorporated into the board rules.
When Meintz went into further talk about the needs of the county to address its financial shortfalls and substantial amount of money. Commissioner Larry Schei suggested the board was taking the wrong approach.
He said he could agree with eliminating unnecessary positions, but said that no one had really evaluated what the administrative assistant does, but that he considers the job to be valuable to commissioners. "I think we're looking at the wrong thing here," he said. "We're looking at pennies instead of dollars."
He said the administrator is paid much more, and questioned Hafeman's suggestion that commissioners could take over some of the administrative work.
Schei said the county has a budget in place, and could start looking at changes for the next budget.
"I don't think we should be acting on this on the spur of the moment at a meeting that was called two days after another issue with the sheriff's department that was much more important."
Lang said Bousley made a strong case in an email to the board on behalf of his employee and asked the board to hold off on making a decision until he could be present and speak on the matter.
Lang went a step further, saying that the board had a board secretary and then an administrative assistant longer than an administrator alone and added, "I think the administrative assistant is more important than the administrator."
Commissioner Jerry Piche voiced his displeasure with the entire issue.
"I'm not happy to have to say this, but let's try to bring some honesty and truth to the meeting," he said.
Piche said that Hafeman and others "are using reasons to skirt around the facts with (board concern) the administrator and the administrative assistant not following our direction.
"We need to work harder to direct our dissatisfaction (to them) instead of talking about it after the meetings and everywhere. Address it right to them. That's the way good government should work. Try to solve it in a more honorable manner."
Bousley's performance came under fire more than once, as commissioners went off the only agenda item to share more of their concerns.
"I do believe the administrator could be doing a lot more," Nelson said. "There are a lot of meetings (he) could not be attending and commissioners could attend."
Plutchak went back to the $72,000 figure for the assistant. "That's a lot of money for one position - a lot that could be broken up. We could hire three people for that."
Schei reminded him that no one could be hired if the position was eliminated, because of the existing hiring freeze. He also questioned the board members' ability to "fill-in." "I don't think any one of us is capable of doing those jobs," he said.
Lang said he consider both the administrator and administrative assistant worthy of the salaries they are paid and said that "the only time you're going to learn how valuable someone is (is after they are gone). Sherry (DuPont) and Sherry's position is worth every penny we pay her."
Schei said the matter should go back to committee, which could do more research instead of asking the board "out of the clear blue sky, two days (after another special meeting) to eliminate a position."
Both Nelson and Meintz said that it had been difficult to get the finance committee to agree on any cuts for the 2014 budget.
Plutchak tossed out the idea of making the position part-time, and Hafeman said that, in doing so, "Would we be able to handle it? It would put more duties on Brian and more on the board."
"I think we should hear from Brian," Lang said.
Plutchak said he expected Bousley to say the position warranted full-time, but that he believed technology, "eliminates a lot of people. With technology, you can get rid of a lot of people." He said nothing in the job description appeared to require it to be full-time.
"It's an at-will position," said Nelson. "If we can eliminate it, surely you can reduce hours." He suggested talking to Prosecuting Attorney Dan Hass about the job description. Plutchak agreed.
Hafeman called for eliminating the position entirely and creating a part-time secretarial position, but Plutchak said that would not work with the hiring freeze.
"Why is this position in the middle of the target?" asked Lang. "Why the administrative assistant?" He asked if politics were behind it.
Nelson became irate and said he was offended that Lang would say it was political. "Don't make stupid comments," he said, before Meintz hit the gavel.
Hafeman changed her position and suggested the board seek legal counsel first, to see if the existing position could be made part-time, and then bring it back to the board, which garnered murmurs of dissent from a small crowd in back corner of the audience. The board agreed it could move forward without a motion.
Commissioner Doug Krienke said he would like to see the hiring freeze ended first if the board intended to take action on changing the position, so "we would have immediate backup to take the place."
Piche wrapped things up by saying how "humorous" he found the whole notion to be about saving money when the board was willing to spend on other things.
"It's a bit of a game. I've been on the board for a little over a year now and I'm beginning to see government doesn't work very well. You're not willing to use reason from certain ones who try to explain something. And you decide to do something, and you get on the phone, and bing-bang, try to get consensus. It's not the way it should be done.
"You have to see that you do things right and that's not happening with this board."
He said he doesn't always agree with Lang, but that Lang makes some good points that are not heeded. "Common sense trumps everything else," he said.
The board meeting adjourned without action on the motion.