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Crow Wing County Board reorganizes as new year begins

Crow Wing County Board Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom (far right) leans in to talk to new Chairman Paul Thiede Tuesday as former Chairman Doug Houge (center) talks to new Vice Chairwoman Rosemary Franzen. Also pictured are Commissioner Paul Koering and Administrative Coordinator Therese Norwood. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

A game of musical chairs of sorts was played Tuesday at the first meeting of the new year of the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioner Paul Koering made the motion to elect Commissioner Paul Thiede to succeed Commissioner Doug Houge as board chairman, and Commissioner Rosemary Franzen seconded the motion, which was unanimously passed at the statutory, organizational and board meeting.

"If it would please the board, since Commissioner Houge is having a little tough time moving," Thiede said about Houge, who had a bandage on the back of his neck and moved stiffly.

Koering also made the successful motion for Franzen—who represents the Fourth District, which includes parts of Brainerd and Baxter—to remain vice chair. The motion was seconded by Thiede from the Second District, which includes Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Crosslake.

Thiede is serving his fourth (non-concurrent) term as a commissioner, and the Air Force veteran previously served four terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

At the start of last year, Houge returned as chairman of the board for 2017 following a 4-1 vote. His then-reappointment for a second consecutive year was a departure from recent county board tradition, which most often resulted in the elevation of the vice chair to chairperson. Thiede had served as vice chair in 2016 and was the lone opposition vote to the motion made in January 2017 to reappoint Houge as chair. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom made the motion to appoint Houge as 2017 chairman and Franzen as vice chair.

That motion, which called for unanimous approval, was seconded last year by Franzen and defeated at the board's first meeting of 2017 when Thiede voted against it, but a second motion seeking majority approval of Houge's nomination passed 4-1.

"I suspect that my elevation to chair was affected by the fact that I disagree with our structure with some of our committee things," Thiede had said at the time in 2017.

Last year's decision not to appoint Thiede was the first time in at least 38 previous appointments when the vice chair was not elevated to chairman for reasons of choice or losing an election.

A review of chair and vice chair appointments dating back to 1980 showed seven previous occasions when the vice chair did not become chair of the board. Four of those were due to election losses by the commissioners serving as vice chair.

The board voted unanimously at its first meeting of this year to increase the per meeting rate for citizens serving on advisory committees from $50 to $75 per meeting for 2018. This is the first increase in 18 years, and it was included in the 2018 budget passed last month.

Excluding unorganized townships, the total county expenditures for 2018 are projected at $87.76 million in the final budget approved after a public hearing at the Historic County Courthouse in Brainerd.

In December, the board unanimously passed a reduced levy for the eighth consecutive year after a public hearing, at which no one spoke. The passage guarantees the streak of not increasing the tax burden on property owners in the county, as far as the county's portion.

"I'd like to just say personally I believe this resolution is part of the overall budget that got us a reduction in the budget for the eighth consecutive year," Thiede said before a vote Tuesday.

The board established a per meeting rate on Tuesday for all appointed citizens serving on advisory committees, excluding county employees, of $75 per meeting plus expenses required for attendance at such meetings, effective immediately, under the jurisdiction of the county.

Each board member may receive reimbursement for "necessary expenses in performing the duties of the office in accordance with resolutions of the board identifying committees and subcommittees and necessary traveling expenses," per a state statute.

"While some might look at this as something different, I think it was part of the overall negotiations for a budget resolution that gave us a zero budget," Thiede said.

The board also approved Tuesday to close meetings in cases of labor negotiation strategy, preliminary consideration of allegations against county employees, performance evaluations of those subject to the board's authority and conferences protected by attorney-client privilege.

Any board member may, by motion, request to have specific meetings open however, according to the resolution passed at Tuesday meeting. The closed meetings resolution that was adopted will be reviewed annually by the board at its January organizational meeting.