Board chairman says committee presented supervisors with 'bold challenge'
By Deborah Bunka
(May 18, 2012 – 3:45 p.m.) The Story County Board of Supervisors Thursday praised the Government Restructuring Committee (GRC) they appointed a year ago for producing a fair and unbiased report before launching into what was sometimes passionate dialogue about the committee’s recommendations.
The supervisors formed the GRC in March 2011. The government restructuring committee was asked to review existing governmental structures and programs, to discuss ideas with Story County citizens, and to make recommendations they believed would improve the responsiveness and efficiency of Story County government.
GRC co-chair Ted Tedesco told supervisors that the committee approached their task without any preconceived ideas and that their main goal was to recommend a structure that could serve the county better in the 21st century.
Tedesco, a Republican who is a former Ames mayor, and Democratic National Committee member Sandy Opstvedt, a Story City resident, led a committee of two other Democrats, two other Republicans and one registered Independent voter. All had experience serving on local boards and commissions or as local elected officials.
The recommendations in the report include:
1. Transitioning to a five-person, part-time board of supervisors who would serve as policy makers with administration and executive duties transferred to a County Manager, who would report directly to the supervisors.
2. Combining a number of offices such as auditor and recorder, as well as City of Ames and Story County assessor positions, which would result in significant savings.
3. Looking at security issues surrounding Story County offices including the installation of panic buttons, front desk personnel and more secure handling of mail.
4. Building or renting secure and long-term storage facilities.
5. Creating a one-stop permit and licensing outlets to enhance service and efficiency.
6. Designing a comprehensive communications system that enhanced communication within county departments and with the public.
7. Adopting a number of proposals from the Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) report on economic development, including hiring a full-time Economic Director.
8. Assisting other municipalities in complying with federal and state requirements whenever possible and bringing cities together to resolve infrastructure issues.
9. Re-organizing the soil and water conservation districts along watershed boundaries.
10. Developing a comprehensive transportation plan, including using the CPAT recommendations to create a combined, multi-year strategy for infrastructure.
(Editor’s note: The numbers were added by Ames News Online to help readers keep the concepts separated.)
Not everyone on the committee agreed with all of the recommendations.
Opstvedt wrote her dissenting views in a minority report that was also presented to the supervisors.
She said, “I strongly disagree with the bulk of this report. The direction was not that we upset the apple cart and find problems where they did not exist. What I have seen is very positive.”
She told supervisors Thursday, “To go with a county manager and bring in another level is a hindrance and impediment to smooth running of government. To make the board of supervisors part-time is wrong. They have played a leadership role and really benefitted this county. If there was (sic) dissatisfaction with the way county employees do their job, we would have heard a real outcry at the meetings we held around the county. The status quo should remain and we should work on building it into something even better.”
Wayne Clinton, chairman of the board of supervisors, said, “You have presented us with an excellent blueprint for change.”
However, Clinton also made clear his lack of comfort with the board direction given to the GRC that “everything was on the table.”
“I was not 100% in favor of the direction we gave you in the first place,” said Clinton. “I only wanted you to look at the three- or five-member area. You have presented us with a bold challenge to ask how we can do this better. We will pay close attention to your recommendations and make decisions about what we can change.”
Supervisor Rick Sanders began his comments by saying, “I am fascinated by this report.”
Sanders said that he felt so strongly about increasing the number of supervisors that he made a motion in his first meeting after being appointed to the board in Summer 2010 to put five supervisors on the ballot. It failed, with Clinton and then supervisor Jane Halliburton voting against it.
Iowa Code 331, which governs county administration, allows for a change from three to five supervisors without creation of a charter commission. Instead, the board of supervisors themselves may vote to put it on the next presidential or gubernatorial year ballot or citizens may present a petition calling for its inclusion on the ballot.
The code says a charter commission is needed to add a county manager or county executive and to change elected officials to appointed ones, although Bill Peterson of the Iowa Association of Counties told the committee when he met with them that both Scott and Polk counties have county “administrators” who act much like county managers and operative on a “cooperative relationship” with other elected officials.
Sanders and Paul Toot were subsequently elected to the board in November 2010. Sanders again raised the issue, leading to the creation of the restructuring committee.
“Structurally, I like five people on the board but I don’t end-up exactly where you did on this point, said Sanders. “I want to discuss how you arrived at these recommendations.”
Tedesco explained that one of the things the committee discovered was an “inherent disconnect in the county government structure.” He cited lack of communication as a key issue, with one problem area being the exchange of information without violating Iowa’s Open Meetings law. It was noted that moving to a five-member board with a county manager would alleviate this problem.
Better representation of people living in outlying areas also was mentioned, as was a reduction in workload as committee and board assignments were split among five, versus three, supervisors.
Clinton also disagreed with the recommendation to change some currently elected positions to appointed ones.
“Why is it that in 2012, 99 counties have stayed with an elected body?” he asked after noting that some Iowa counties had already placed similar initiatives unsuccessfully on their ballots.
“If these folks are doing their job, they can be voted out. That is a direct representation of the will of the people. If you go to an appointed position, who makes those appointments? I see the way we are hiring department heads right now better than asking one person [the county manager] to be responsible for that.”
Clinton said that the current structure of liaising with department heads and elected officers is an effective communication tool. “Of course we can’t know all the background information in these departments but this method is working and we can make it even better,” he said.
Supervisor Toot said he was concerned about the cost to hire a county manager. “One county manager won’t be able to fill the role successfully without a staff. It becomes a budgetary issue,” he said.
Each supervisor currently receives a base salary around $62,000 and a benefits package worth about $550 per month, Chairmanship of the board rotates between supervisors, with the chairman receiving about an additional 3 percent in salary.
Discussion of many of the GRC’s proposed changes brought the discussion back to finances.
Rick Sanders said, “I am in entire agreement with the concept of greater security. I am trying to reconcile that with a limited revenue stream. To fully staff and man our buildings, we are talking one million dollars a year. Where does this rank when we have limited dollars?”
Throughout the evening’s discussion it also became clear that the supervisors were not in a position to act on the most sweeping of GRC’s recommendations. This led to an exchange between Sanders and Tedesco.
“Are we even empowered to do this? It seems to me the Board can’t take action on any of this,” Sanders asked regarding changes to the board structure and hiring a county manager.
Tedesco acknowledged the impetus for change would have to come from Story Citizens in the form of a petition with a minimum of 9,168 valid signatures, after which a commission of 26 members would be formed to re-write the county charter to make the changes possible.
“This commission would have one year to do the job or they could do nothing, if they so wished,” Sanders countered. Tedesco conceded that in the best-case scenario, it would likely be 2014 before proposed changes were added to a ballot.
There were however, many areas where there was complete agreement. One-stop permits and licensing was one.
Both the supervisors and the GRC agreed that, although it would prove challenging, the public would be well served by the consolidation of licensing facilities. “The public are our consumers and we want our consumers to be well-served,” Clinton said.
About 20 people were in the audience, including some commission members. Public comment was sparse.
Nancy Miller of Nevada supported the five-member board of supervisors option.
She said, “It is human nature to have a comfort level with status quo.Too many people are scared to death of change.” She also cited accountability concerns about appointed officials.
Sanders responded to her comments, saying, “The committee is not asking us to go to five alone. It is asking us to go to the people and ask for their input. I thought this issue was a big deal. I was wrong. There is not enough impetus.”
Jim Cheek who identified himself as a Story County employee, said, “Change for the sake of change doesn’t make sense to me. This government has stood the test of time. It worked then and it works now.”
Clinton responded, “I am not afraid of change but I think the way it is now (three full-time supervisors) is very effective. Service is always the most important objective.”
Story Country Attorney Holmes agreed.
“I am analytical, said Holmes. “For me, it’s about the evidence. I appreciate the comments about the willingness to change, but those concerns have not manifested themselves in any of the surveys this committee has undertaken. In terms of the number of people who answered and the content of their answers, we have no evidence for the necessity of a change.”
Three hours into the meeting, Director Clinton called for dissolution of the GRC and adjournment of the meeting.
Afterwards, when asked if he felt his committee’s recommendations were taken seriously Tedesco replied, “Oh, I think so.” Asked which recommendations he felt were likely to be acted on, he said, “Well, I think all of them. The Board will at least look at them and try their best but I think it’s up to the citizens. If they want to change either the number of supervisors or the charter, it’s up to them to sign the petitions and get the process started.”