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County board opts to appoint auditor, recorder

After a heated meeting before more than 20 county residents on Tuesday evening, the Lake County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution to make the county auditor / treasurer and recorder jobs appointed positions. Previously, both positions were decided by residents at the ballot box.

“By appointing the positions, we have the ability to put qualified people in those positions,” Commissioner Rich Sve said at the meeting.

County auditor Steve McMahon retired this month, and board members have said they plan to keep recorder Erica Koski in her position as long as she chooses to stay.

About a dozen county residents spoke at the meeting, offering comments and asking questions. The majority who spoke opposed the change. Many expressed the concern that allowing the county board to appoint an auditor and recorder was a consolidation of power and that the county was infringing on the rights of Lake Countians.

“I don’t think it’s your right to take my right to vote,” said Tim Costley, a local attorney. “It looks like a power grab.”

Most of the commissioners said that they too had reservations when they initially heard about the plan. Commissioner Jeremy Hurd said he was wary at first, but after researching it and talking to constituents, he changed his mind.

“At the end of the day, I think this is in the best interest of Lake County,” he said.

According to Lake County officials, 26 of 87 Minnesota counties have appointed recorders and 19 have appointed auditors. Around 70 percent of the state’s population is under appointed auditors or recorders.

Commissioner Rick Goutermont said that the commissioners don’t doubt that there are qualified people within the county who can do the jobs, but he is worried that not everyone is willing to go through the election process.

“It takes a different type of person and another level of courage” to run for a public office, Goutermont said.

Mitch Costley, another Two Harbors attorney, has been an outspoken critic of changing to appointed positions for auditor and recorder. He said that county officials should allow the matter to be decided by voters in November.

“If you’re so confident that this would be the best thing to do, then put it on the ballot,” he said.

County administrator Matt Huddleston said timing was a reason to expedite the change. A bill allowing the county to make the switch passed the legislature earlier this month. The measure, which includes four other counties in addition to Lake, passed the House of Representatives last year but didn’t get through the Senate until this session. Commissioner Brad Jones and Huddleston, representing the county board, testified in front of the legislature in favor of the bill.

With elections for the auditor and recorder coming up this fall, if the board hadn’t approved the change on Tuesday night, it would have had to wait until the end of another four-year term or until the position was vacated before an appointment could be made.

“If the board doesn’t adopt it tonight, the election will have to move forward,” Huddleston said before the commissioners approved the resolution.

The filing period for the positions opens on May 20 and closes on June 3.

Huddleston said the county will go through its normal recruitment and hiring process for the two positions by determining minimum qualifications, accepting and ranking applications and reviewing the applicants to choose the best candidate for the job.

Opponents said the bottom line was that the commissioners are still making the final hiring decision.

“This is just a simple matter of protecting my voting rights and not letting the county board take on additional powers that were intended for regular folks to have,” Tim Costley told the News-Chronicle on Wednesday. “I have a feeling that the people of Lake County are not going to go along with it.”

Costley said he is drafting a petition opposing the change. He and other opponents have until May 17 to gather the signatures of 739 registered county voters. If they do, the question of whether to appoint the auditor and recorder will be put on the ballot this fall.

Watch the News-Chronicle for updates on this story.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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