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Contract Prompts Public Questions To Supervisors

By Staff | Jan 6, 2011

Elected officials were sworn in Tuesday during the first working day of the new year. County Auditor Gary Leonard, left, administered the oath of office to County Attorney Lyssa Henderson, Supervisor Keith Wirtz, Recorder Bonnie Whitney, Supervisor Jerry Hofstad, Treasurer Mary Hilfiker and Supervisor Ed Noonan, from left to right. -- Dan Voigt photo

Keith Wirtz of Mallard was elected chair of the Palo Alto County’s Board of Supervisors during the re-organizational session of the body Tuesday, Jan. 4. Supervisor Ron Graettinger was slected as chairman Pro-Tem of the board, which also made several appointments and resolutions for the new year during the session.

Prior to the seating of the new chair, the oath of office was administered to newly elected County Attorney Lyssa Henderson, as well as county officers who won re-election to their posts, including County Treasurer Mary Hilfiker, County Recorder Bonnie Whitney and County Supervisors Jerry Hofstad, Keith Wirtz and Ed Noonan.

One of the first items of business to face the board was the employment of the County Engineer. In action at its’ Dec. 21, 2010 meeting, the board have voted to offer current Engineer Joel Fantz a six-month contract of employment. In Tuesday’s session, Wirtz asked Fantz where he wanted to start.

“I suppose we should start with having an engineer or not,” Fantz answered.

Supervisor Jerry Hofstad produced a contract for Fantz, stating it contained “two or three incidental changes that I made,” as he presented it to Fantz. On two of the changes, Fantz was agreeable, but the third condition met resistance.

“Here it says ‘may’ instead of ‘shall’ and ‘more or less’,” Hofstad said, referring to a section addressing salary increases for the engineer.

“No, no I don’t agree with the ‘may’,” Fantz said. “”That was not part of the original agreement.”

“Well..except that we had several periods of where we don’t give anybody else a raise and we can’t do it with you and nobody else, can we?”

“I don’t agree with that, Jerry,” Fantz said.

The board then discussed the specific language proposed by Hofstad, and Fantz pointed out that any raise should be equal to, and not less than what the other elected officials received.

“Well, certainly,” agreed Supervisor Leo Goeders

“I haven’t had a raise in two years, and I’m fine with that.” Fantz said. “This has been tough economic times for people. But, if it was a different board, I might be OK with that change.”

“I’m not sure where we’re at here,” Board Chair Wirtz said.

“The contract says that he shall have an increase in salary every year,” Hofstad replied.

“No, that’s not what it says,” Supervisor Ron Graettinger spoke up.

Fantz said if the elected officials received a raise, he would get the same increase, in his interpetation.

Hofstad continued to explain his proposed change, but Fantz spoke up.

“You know what, you guys have made an offer to me – that’s a contractural offer, and I accept the offer you made the other day, let’s just end this discussion. The offer is in the minutes and I accept that offer you made the other day,” Fantz said.

It’s the same contract as before,” Graettinger said.

“The contract was approved on a 3-2 vote at the last meeting,” Wirtz stated, “So if we’re accepting that, there is no vote today.”

During the exchange, several citizens were on hand, and with the formality out of the way, Cylinder area farmer Dean Gunderson asked for a chance to speak.

“It’s my understanding this is a six-month contract. What are the supervisors plans for in the future?” Gunderson began. “It seems to me you guys set out a pretty aggressive plans for roads with the ethanol plant and farm to market roads, and I’m just wondering what your intentions are and what’s going to happen or where does that leave all these projects?”

“Well hopefully it will all stay in place,” Wirtz responded. “We just had some issues we wanted to discuss and set forth some goals, plans, we’ve really never done that. Priorities would be a good word for that that we’ve never got to discuss it, so that’s why we wanted some time to get those priorities spelled out and go see what develops.”

Gunderson asked what terms the priorities were, projects or personnel.

“There’s a county plan already filed,” Wirtz said. “We’d like to discuss the number of times roads are graded and some things like that that we wanted to set priority to things in Secondary Roads that we want to establish.”

Gunderson asked if these were things that had just come up or if there hadn’t been time to address them. “Obviously there must have been an issue prior to this.”

“We probably should have established this earlier,” Wirtz admitted, “It’s just some things we wanted to settle and this gives us a time frame to do that.”

Wirtz went on to mention that the idea of sharing an engineer had been broached during other meetings with other counties, as a means of saving money, but noted that there has been no time to explore that idea.

“You know Keith, if we go into this with that kind of attitude, we’re going to have an engineer looking for another job and he probably won’t be sitting here in six months,” Leo Goeders said.

With all the jobs we want done, that’s why I’m not in favor of the six months,” Ron Graettinger said. “We’ve got so many projects that we want done, we can’t afford to share an engineer at this time.”

Graettinger referred to the bonding program Fantz had developed, and noted that with the ambitious schedule proposed for the bond program, there would be no way an outsider could come in and complete everything in the established timetable.

“That’s the reason a six month contract isn’t enough. To me, I don’t think it’s fair, but that’s where it’s going to be and I’m happy we have Joel for six months,” Graettinger added. “I think in the next two months we need to have a contract for him so he knows where he stands and we can move forward with what we’ve planned. Now, we’ve just thrown a monkey wrench into the thing. That’s the way I look at it.”

“What are you saying, he won’t do his job?” Supervisor Ed Noonan asked. “What are you talking about, a monkey wrench?”

“He’ll do his job,” Graettinger stated emphatically. “But why would he want to stay without a long term contract?”

Wirtz offered an idea where the engineer would focus on the engineering aspect, while a superintendent was responsible for the daily maintenance operations.

A question was raised by Dan McCain as to whether the board was sending a mixed message to officials at POET in terms of the road project planned to serve the Project Liberty development. ‘I’d be concerned the message we’d be sending in terms of economic development, if Joel were gone, how much time it would take to complete their project if they wanted to be open and running in 2012.”

“I don’t want to overstate the importance of an engineer, but we have a terrific team. It took 10 years to develop and train that engineering team in the office, but we have a terrific team,” Fantz said. “Leadership is important.”

McCain asked who developed the bonding plan and whether it was based on another entity’s effort. Fantz answered that it was developed in Palo Alto County and was the first project of its kind done in the state.

“Was that your idea?” McCain asked Fantz.

“Yes,” Hofstad answered for Fantz.

Fantz credited the board for the foresight in supporting the plan and what it could do for the residents of the county.

“Our mission is simply to establish some priorities and programs that we don’t have, that we need to get done,” Hofstad said, “and we’d like to get that done and move on, just like we are, without any changes.”

Gunderson asked if the board was looking at and extended contract after six months, to which Hofstad answered, “yes.”

“We don’t want to jeopardize what’s been set forth here,” Wirtz agreed.

“No, Joel’s done a good job with that stuff,” Hofstad said of the bonding.

The idea of a lack of security for the engineer with the six month contract was again raised by McCain, who pointed out the potential of loss of a young family from the community should Fantz choose to seek employment elsewhere.

“Let’s hope we can get all these things taken care of that we’re interested in, and that we can put that behind us and assure him that he’s going to have a contract and not to worry about it,” Hofstad said.

“Before the six months,” added Goeders.

“I think it’s crucial you guys get this settled as soon as possible. Six months will be here before you know it,” observed Scott Dettmann of Ag Partners. “Being in the business, leadership, strong leadership is crucial. Leadership, somebody of Joel’s magnitude, is going to be very crucial. You just can’t have a leader in limbo, because they’re going to find something else to do. You can’t do that. I think it’s fair to give Joel assurance that he’s doing a good job. There’s always going to be issues, but you have to give a strong leader an assurance he’s going to be here and given the time to do his jobI strongly, strongly urge this board to get this resolution taken care of in the month of January.”

“I’ve never said it personally, but Joel does an excellent job, we know that,” Wirtz said,”But we have some other things, to set some prioritieswe know Joel’s doing a good job here and we thank him for that.”

Ron Ludwig, the Executive Director of Upper Des Moines Opportunity, equated a six-month contract to a probation period for sub-par or not acceptible. “If I got a six-month agreement instead of an annual agreement, I’d be updating my resume` and thinking about what’s best for my family.”

“I’d like to know what performance deficiencies or what parts of his job he is not performaing to the standard that the supervisors feel he should be, and if there’s nothing in particular, then the things you mentioned Keith and Jerry, that could be incorporated in contracts, Ludwig continued.

Ludwig said in his view, the average citizen on the street was not aware of any performance deficiencies on the part of the engineer. As far as sharing, Ludwig said he felt Palo Alto County was in a position to have other counties come to Palo Alto to ask to share our engineer.

“I would put our engineer up against any engineer, and I work with 12 counties, so I talk with supervisors in 12 different counties and they would be more than happy to have the quality engineering department we have,” Ludwig said.

As Ludwig again equated the six-month contract to a probationary period, Dr. Jim Bird of Emmetsburg spoke up, “I’d mimic those words exactly.”

“I’m puzzled,” Ludwig said. “Why there is even this discussion. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, If you have particular issues