Top official resigns amid board’s desire for new direction
The top administrator for Steele County resigned Friday after being placed on administrative leave just days before.
During a special county board meeting Friday afternoon, commissioners accepted the resignation of Laura Elvebak, who had been the county administrator for two years. The board approved the resignation immediately, waiving the 30-day notice clause in Elvebak’s contract.
As part of her departure, Elvebak will receive a lump sum payment of three months salary as well as health benefits for that time period. Her salary prior to a recent increase March 30 was $119,616.
The main tasks that Elvebak had been responsible for in recent months have been assigned to various department heads. Those responsibilities include the courthouse repairs, the public works complex and Community Corrections Act conversion, among others.
Elvebak’s uncertain future with the county began April 11 when the board held a closed session to discuss her annual performance review. Elvebak was not present at the review. On Tuesday, April 18, board chair James Brady placed her on paid administrative leave. Just two days later, Elvebak submitted her resignation.
The quick turn of events caught many county workers by surprise as they expressed shock at Elvebak’s departure.
But the county board, which includes three newly elected board members who took office in January, sought a new direction with its administrative staff.
At Friday’s meeting, Brady read from a statement, “The summary in conclusion of that review was the board determined the county administrator is not the person the board wishes to carry out its vision for the future of the county.”
Brady’s remarks were the first to shed light on what happened between the board and Elvebak, who was not present at Friday’s meeting.
“For the betterment of the county, a change needed to be made,” Commissioner Greg Krueger said after Friday’s special meeting. “We can’t have a board and an administrator at odds with each other,” he said.
It’s exactly unclear when Elvebak began experiencing problems with the board. But Krueger expressed concern with her management style in recent weeks. “We didn’t feel she was carrying forward the wishes of the board,” he said. “We weren’t seeing the enthusiasm for change that we were looking for,” he added.
Asked what the board is looking to change, Krueger identified two specific examples. “We’re trying to be a little more fiscally responsible. We are watching the tax dollars,” he said. “We’re also trying to get all departments working together as a team.”
Friday’s meeting drew comments, questions and concerns from a packed board room of residents, employees and a former administrator. “I’ve known her. I’ve worked with her. I know her to be incredibly capable, competent, dedicated,” said Tom Shea, a former commissioner and administrator. “I feel that you will be hard-pressed to find somebody who will bring the knowledge and skillset and the dedication that they’ve had with Laura. I’m sorry to see her go,” he told the board.
Shea said he is “incredibly disappointed” in the direction the board has chosen in forcing Elvebak out. “She was very skilled, dedicated and professional,” he said. “She was a really good fit for Steele County.”
But Krueger isn’t worried about the future of the top leadership.
“We think we can find someone equally talented as Laura that can do it all differently,” Krueger said.
Krueger pointed out that last fall’s election should be an indication to people about the direction the board is headed. “We were given a strong mandate to make change,” he said. Voters ousted three veteran commissioners from the board in November by wide margins.
During the meeting, commissioners attempted to clear the air about “a misperception out there,” amongst the county employees and the public. “There’s a perception out there amongst several of the employees in our county that they’re not valued,” said Commissioner Jim Abbe. “I’d just like to publicly state that we have a lot of hard working women and men in our county operations that are very valued, and there’s no underlying mission here that we’re going to start cutting a bunch of positions,” he said.
Added Commissioner Rick Gnemi, “It’s not our agenda to knock people off left and right. You guys do a good job. We really can’t complain.”
Marlene Nelson, a longtime critic of county government, expressed her appreciation to the board for trying to make the county run as lean as possible. “I think you’ve sincerely got the interest of taxpayers of Steele County at heart, and that’s something we hadn’t seen before, so I want to thank you very much,” Nelson said.
With Elvebak’s departure, the board’s top priority will become naming an interim county administrator while beginning the search to permanently replace her. The board directed Brady and Krueger to work with Julie Johnson, who is the county’s human resources director, on finding an interim administrator.
There was also some discussion on whether the county should hire an administrator, which Elvebak was or a coordinator, which Dave Severson had been when he retired in 2011. A coordinator is generally paid less than an administrator and has less authority.
Shea, who had been an administrator and served the board during the time the county had a coordinator, emphasized the importance of sticking with the administrator position.
“Moving back to a coordinator position would be very shortsighted in my mind and very detrimental to the county in the long run,” Shea told the board. He pointed out with the size of county government, which includes a $40 million budget, $70 million in assets, 140 employees and 19 departments, it would not make sense to go without an administrator.
Shea said, “For a successful operation, you need to have strong leadership in the administration that can administer the policies of the board, align the mission and direction that this board gives and hold the operation accountable.”
Krueger later said he is “absolutely opposed” to the county switching back to a coordinator. “Five citizen members (the board) can’t manage a county,” he admitted. “We are too large of a county.”
During an interview after the meeting, Shea said without an administrator “you really expose the county to great liability.”
There are only 15 counties in Minnesota that operate under a coordinator-style administration while 52 have county administrators. A handful of smaller counties run the county with other elected officials.
Efforts to reach Elvebak for comment were unsuccessful.