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Engineer’s Contract Draws Public Questions

By Staff | Jan 11, 2011

Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of an article that first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Democrat regarding the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors issuing a six-month contract of employment to County Egnineer Joel Fantz. Several members of the public appeared at the Supervisor’s meeting on Jan. 4 to question the reasons for that decision.

“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,” Supervisor Jerry Hofstad said.

“Before the six months,” added Supervisor Leo 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 thatI 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,” Board Chair Keith 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 acceptable. “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 performing 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 pointed out.

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, not for Palo Alto to ask to share someone else’s 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.”

The point of the bonding and the improvements to roads that Fantz and the board have orchestrated were once again praised by Ludwig. “I think the board’s done a great job, I think you work very well together.”

“That has worked well,” agreed Wirtz.

“I’m puzzled why there is even this discussion, because I’m old-fashioned – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Ludwig said. “I see the relationship between the county board of supervisors and the county engineer as a working relationshipI think it seems to be working pretty good.”

“I think I’m very safe in saying we’re very happy with the bonding, which was brought to our attention by Joel when the Legislature changed the rules, and it has worked very well,” Wirtz said, “And we hope to certainly keep that right on track.”

“If you have particular issues that you feel need to be addressed, they can also always be incorporated into a longer term contract,” Ludwig pointed out, “And you can set standards of performance if you think some particular things need to be changed or adjusted. The six-month contract purveys to use as citizens a negative connotation.”

“As it is now, we have a six-month contract, and like Jerry says, probably within a month we can have a longer one,” Goeders said.

“I hope so,” Hofstad said. “I see no reason why we can’t.”

“I would think you could sign a year’s contract and within the next month, you could go back and prioritize things the supervisors are looking at,” Tim McCain said. “Look and see what other counties are doing and what their priorities are and how do they go about fine-tuning them. They do that with their engineer, I would assume. Why can’t you do that? You should. Sign a year’s contract.”

Again, Wirtz reiterated that the board would try to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

“Are you talking about a one year, two year agreement at the end of the six-months?” Ludwig asked.

“That hasn’t been discussed,” Supervisor Ed Noonan commented.

“We need to have more discussion, I guess,” said Wirtz.

“But in the meantime, he doesn’t know if he’s going to have a job in six months,” Tim McCain pressed.

“He’s not going to stick around if he doesn’t know that.”

“I agree we should have been quicker, but we intend to handle it shortly so everyone knows where we’re at,” Wirtz said. “The sharing thing came up because of the economic times, it’s something we wanted to look at, but it hasn’t even been discussed. Our priority would be to keep him in place if that would be a good thing, but that’s something we need to look at.”

Goeders stated he wanted to start that process right away to give Fantz peace of mind in his future,

Gunderson asked if the board had been contacted about sharing an engineer, or if the board had contacted another county. Wirtz replied nothing formal had taken place, it was more conversation at other meetings where supervisors gather, noting that there have been several counties that have combined offices to cut expenses.

When asked if the main issues for the board with the engineer’s officer were budgets and sharing, Wirtz acknowledged that a couple of the issues, in the minds of some supervisors, were maintenance and roads, in terms of priorities.

“We’ve talked with Joel quite a bit that his road building skills are excellent, but his maintenance skills are un-excellent, we’ve had those discussions,” Noonan said.

“You realize you have an individual who is in limbo, so don’t put that on the engineer. Don’t put that on the engineer, that was the board’s responsibility to be more proactive and quicker on that,” Scott Dettmann said. “If you had something with that, in my mind, that should have been addressed earlier, by the board.”

“I’ve been addressing it for four years,” Noonan said. “I’ve tried.”

Gunderson asked if the engineer receives evaluations from the board.

Fantz replied he had received evaluations from other boards, but not the current board.

“That’s where some of that probably needs to be addressed instead of bringing it right to the end,” Gunderson said. “Communication between the board and the engineer.”

“Point taken, Dean,” Wirtz said, as the discussion came to a close.

The board agreed to conduct an evaluation session with Fantz at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Each supervisor will complete an evaluation form, which will be compiled and presented to the engineer at that time.