Friday, January 28, 2011

County Government 101 Training at AMC

The conclusion of AMC's training for newly elected commissioners included a tour of Minnesota's State Capitol.  Designed by Cass Gilbert and modeled after Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, the unsupported marble dome is the second largest in the world, after Saint Peter's.  This photo shows the Star of the North on the floor of the rotunda; the dome is under repair for water damage.
The Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) sponsored a 2-day training for newly elected County Commissioners this week in St. Paul.  As anticipated, the training was excellent and included sessions on Strategic Leadership, duties of a County Commissioner, Open Meeting Law & Parliamentary Procedure, County Government Structure, County Finances, Ethics in Government and the Legislative Process.  The presenters were excellent, all of them with experience in their areas of expertise and most of them still serving as County Commissioners, County Administrators or County Coordinators.

If you go to the AMC website, you will learn that "The Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) is a voluntary, non-partisan statewide organization that has assisted the state’s 87 counties in providing effective county governance to the people of Minnesota since 1909.  The association works closely with the legislative and administrative branches of government in seeing that legislation and policies favorable to counties are enacted.   AMC also provides educational programs, training, research and communications for county officials."  I thought one Cook County Department Head expressed it perfectly today when she said, "AMC is us!" 

AMC also provides an excellent way to share ideas and collaborate with County Commissioners from other counties.  Counties working together can achieve more than a single county can do on its own.  I appreciated the opportunity to meet with AMC's Executive Director Jeff Spartz, AMC Board Members, AMC Staff and Policy Analysts, Presenters & Trainers from other Counties, and all the other newly elected County Commissioners.

I found this training to be inspiring.  As evidenced by the non-stop conversation in the room, there was a lot of passion, hope and eagerness from the newly elected.  And, it's good to know that our County Board can find support from AMC and the other 86 counties as we face common challenges.   

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

County Board Meeting and Towers Work Session

Today was an extremely productive day for the County Board with our regularly scheduled meeting and a Work Session.

County Board of Commissioners Meeting

MN Small Cities Development Program Application Public Hearing
A Public Hearing was held this morning to provide information and receive public input and comments on Cook County's submission of a MN Small Cities Application to the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development on behalf of the Lake and Cook County Joint Housing Initiative.  The application will request funds for owner occupied housing rehabilitation and commercial rehabilition.    Nancy Grabko informed the Board that the Lake/Cook Joint Housing Initiative submitted a pre-application last Fall and was invited to submit a full proposal in February 2011.  If successful, the program will fund some rehabilitation for 16 owner occupied homes (8 in Cook County) and 4 commercial properties.  The County Board unanimously passed a resolution to support this proposal.

Gravel Permits
The County Board approved (4) Gravel Pit Permits, (3) with modifications as discussed at County Board Meeting on January 11. 

Highway Department 
County Board unanimously approved the replacement of the Mezzanine Stairway in the Highway Department garage.  The temporary stairway was identified by OSHA as a serious hazard and violation of OSHA standard 1910.0024(d).  Cost to replace is $6500 and will be paid for from the Building Fund.

County Board unanimously approved the Capital Purchase Request for (2) 2011 Mack Dump Trucks.  This purchase is a scheduled replacement for existing plow trucks and was already approved for the 2011 Budget.  The price of these trucks is approximately $10,000 higher than the estimate.  David Betts and Russell Klegstad of the Highway Department will handle this overrun by the delay or elimination of purchasing other smaller equipment.  The Highway Department does have an equipment replacement plan extending out 14 years.

Adam Harju joined the Highway Department and Sheriff Falk to request a special event permit application for a mountain bike race to be held on June 11.  Cook County, through the Cook County Visitor's Bureau (CCVB), will be hosting the event in partnership with Lifetime Fitness.  Lifetime Fitness is an industry leader in developing and running world class mountain biking and running races and will be paying all associated costs for traffic control and other county personnel expenses.  Hosting this race will give Cook County extremely positive exposure to an anticipated 500 racers.  Research shows that each racer typically brings an average of (2) other visitors with them.  County Board unanimously approved the request for the permit application subject to road closure and traffic plan approvals. 

Community Center Project
Tom Wacholz and Rob Barse of ORB Management gave an overview of the proposed Community Center Design Team Selection process.  Both the Community Center Steering Committee and ORB Management have recommended Meyer Group/JLG Architects as the selected firms for the project.  Meyer Group will be the architect of record.  A draft agreement (Standard AIA Form) between Cook County and Meyer Group was presented and discussed.  The County Board voted unanimously to approve Meyer Group as the selected architectural firm and authorized ORB Management (as the County's Owner's Representative and Construction Manager) and Tim Scannell to negotiate a contract for County Board approval.  Meyer Group/JLG will also retain the following design firms:  Structural Engineer: Northland Consulting, Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: Dunham Associations, Associate/Design Architect:  JLG Architects, Interior Design: Isola Design, Landscape Architect: Appold Design, Food Service:  DHA Associations, Aquatics:  Water Technologies, Inc.

As directed by the County Board last week, the Community Center Steering Committee formalized themselves by creating ByLaws and electing a Chair and Secretary.  The ByLaws were reviewed by the Committee and approved by the County Board.  Sue Hakes and Diane Booth were elected as Committee Chair and Secretary respectively.  Committee members are the existing members of the ad hoc committee.  Both Diane Booth and I talked about the importance of continuing to keep the process open and transparent and the value of the Steering Committee as it represents stakeholders and reflects our community.  It is important to note that all meetings are open to the public.  Plans are being made for public participation and input once a preliminary design has been created.

ORB Management submitted a 1% Projects Consulting Proposal to the County Board for review and acceptance.  The County Board discussed the proposal at length but made no decision.  More information regarding payment options was requested.  Generally, the Board agreed that ORB would provide value in their oversight of the 1% projects.  Involving ORB could be done on a project by project basis.

Braidy Powers presented the Cook County Investment Report and the Cook County Investment Policy for the Board's information.  Board discussed the need to protect the County's cash reserves and investments from the State taking it to balance their budget.

Powers also reviewed the 2010 General Fund budget.  Overall expenditures after some adjustments were at 104.3%.  Additional adjustment for accruals will be made during the audit process.

Towers Work Session
The County Board held its first work session; the topic was Communications Towers in Cook County.  This work session was requested by several department heads including:  Sheriff Mark Falk, Attorney Tim Scannell, Danna MacKenzie, Mary Black, Tim Nelson.  Also in attendance were Duane Ege, Jeff Nemitz and several members of the general public.  This work session resulted in identifying several issues surrounding communications towers and a need for better tower management.  A small work group was formed to explore creating a job description to meet the Administrative and Technical needs for tower management.  The Communications/E911 Committee will be working on tower issues in the future.  County Board representatives on that committee are Jan Hall and Sue Hakes.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Maintenance Department and Public Health & Human Services Tours

Maintenance Department
Today I met with Brian Silence, Head of the Maintenance Department.  Brian gave me an overview of the Maintenance Department's responsibilities which includes 16 buildings (including Highway Department facilities, the Community Center, Historical Society, tower buildings and Courthouse), 4 cemeteries, the truck and car fleet, and boat landings.  We toured the mechanical rooms where I was able to see some of the building's air handling, electrical, water heater and boiler systems.  We also had a general discussion about overall workspace in the courthouse and budget.  It was interesting to see "behind the scenes" of the Courthouse and tour areas not typically seen.

Public Health and Human Services (PHHS)
Yesterday, I met with Sue Futterer, Director of Public Health & Human Services (PHHS).  This Department is complex, far-reaching, and likely touches the lives of most Cook County residents in one way or another.

In general, the County is responsible for delivering mandated human services on behalf of the State.  Sue gave me an overview of Cook County's services by introducing me to the Staff and letting me ask questions about their work.  Click here for some interesting facts about Minnesota's Human Services System.  

Because I am the County Board liaison to PHHS, Sue and I will be meeting on at least a monthly basis.  Jan Parish (PHHS Finance), Sue Futterer and I have scheduled a 2nd meeting for Jan to begin to explain the PHHS funding sources, expenses and overall budget to me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Human Services and County Board Meetings

The County Board meets on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Tuesdays of every month at 8:30 am.  On the 3rd Tuesday, the Human Services Board meets from 8:30 - 10:00 am as part of the County Board meeting.  These meetings are open to the public; County Board Meeting agendas and minutes are posted on the Cook County website.

Human Services Board Meeting

The Human Services Board consists of all members of the County Board plus (2) representatives from the Public Health & Human Services Advisory (PHHS) Committee.  The PHHS Advisory Committee Reps are Diane Fitzgerald and Carla LaPointe, Chair and Vice Chair of the PHHS Advisory Committee. 

I was pleased to be elected Chair of the Human Services Board; Jan Hall was elected Vice-Chair.  My role as the Chair complements my being the liaison to the Public Health and Human Services Department and other related committee assignments (North Shore Collaborative, AEOA, Arrowhead Health Alliance, PHHS Advisory Board).  Each of the Human Services related committees is assigned to a County Commissioner and reported on monthly.

Julie Myrhe, Community Health Board Director, reported on the revised recommended language for the State Community Health Services Advisory Committee (SCHSAC).

Jan Parish, Income Maintenance and Fiscal Supervisor, gave a Financial Report for PHHS. 

Sue Futterer, Director, provided the Board with 2011 Legislative Initiatives as recommended by the Minnesota Association of County Social Services Administrators (MACSSA) which basically include a) simplifying human service programs, b) aligning funding with outcomes for vulnerable populations, and c) investing in technology to assure efficient administration of publicly funded human services.   Sue also gave her Alternative Work Site 4th Quarter Report.

There were several Board Actions taken, the most significant being a commitment to be involved in the Region 3 Human Services Redesign Income Maintenance Project.  Other actions taken included approving several Purchase of Service Agreements between Cook County and various service providers.

County Board Meeting

A couple of changes were made to the Agenda.  The annual review of Conditional Use Permits for designated gravel pits was moved to next week's County Board Meeting (1/25/11).  And, Tim Scannell requested the meeting be closed for ~5 minutes for Board to discuss a threatened litigation. 

Open Forum
Two members of the Public opted to address the Board during the Open Forum.  Mary Manning requested the Board include the Public in discussions and decision-making regarding the communications towers; she specifically noted the Hovland tower.  Bob LaMettry addressed the Board with concerns about the speed in which the 1% Sales Tax funds are allocated and suggested the Board move forward with careful thought toward future needs for infrastructure projects.  He also noted Arrowhead Electric Cooperative's proposal to the Fiber Optic Commission for $1.8M to fund up to $400/residence for in-home wiring to connect fiber optics and suggested that the Board consider low interest or no interest loans for this purpose. 

Community Center Project Update from ORB Management
Tom Wacholz, President of ORB Management, gave a detailed overview of the overall project process for the Community Center.  ORB Management is the Construction Manager representing Cook County in the Community Center project.  Wacholz reviewed the project directory, organizational chart, master activity schedule, stakeholders, users, interested parties, project history, guiding principles, and communication tools for the project.

Wacholz then detailed the solicitation process for the design team and the design team selection process.  14 firms requested the Request for Proposal (RFP) with 6 firms submitting proposals.  At next week's County Board Meeting, ORB Management and the Community Center Steering Committee will be making a recommendation to the County Board for a single firm to be the Architect of Record for the project.  A decision from the County Board is anticipated January 25.

To streamline the process of the Community Center, the County Board unamimously approved (2) motions:  1) The County Board directed the Community Center Steering Committee to formalize the existing ad hoc committee to include between 15-18 members, elect a chair and secretary, and adopt organizationl documents and bylaws, and 2) The County Board will hold regularly scheduled 1% Project worksessions for project managers (or advocates) to meet with the County Board to update the Board and receive direction from the Board

Lastly, Wacholz outlined the design phase for the project which will include soliciting input from stakeholders, staff, and the general public.

County Board Worksessions
The Board agreed to set aside time each month from 1:30-3:00 pm the 4th Tuesday of each month for Worksessions.  The first worksession will be held January 25 regarding communications/tower issues and was requested by Sheriff Mark Falk, IS Director Danna MacKenzie, Attorney Tim Scannell, County Engineer David Betts, Planning Director Tim Nelson.  Other possible Worksession Topics include Budget, 1% Project Planning & Prioritizing, Broadband, others as necessary.  These worksessions will give the Board and Department Heads an opportunity to plan and problem solve for some of the more complex issues facing the County.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

More Good Info from the Department Heads

I had another very productive day at the Courthouse in my on-going effort to learn more about the business of Cook County.

Planning & Zoning
Tim Nelson, Director of Planning & Zoning, and I spent the better part of the morning discussing the work of the Office of Planning & Zoning (OPZ) Department.  The OPZ is responsible for land use ordinances, subdivision approvals, platting, conditional use permits and variances, building permits, septic and well inspections, solid waste management, recycling and more.  Tim Nelson and I both serve on the NE Waste Advisory Committee (NEWAC)--a cooperative advisory council of (7) area counties and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) and the County's Waste Solid Waste Committee.

Information Systems Management (IT/MIS/GIS)
Danna MacKenzie, Director of Information Systems Management (ISM), walked me through the various functions and responsibilities that make up the Information Systems Management (ISM) Department. ISM works closely with all County Departments to ensure the hardware (computers, printers, scanners, telephones, copiers, etc.) and software systems (Tax Programs, CAMA, Document Imaging, etc.) are operational and meeting department needs.  ISM is also responsible for developing the geographic information systems that includes web mapping, parcel inventory, E-911 location services, etc.)

Danna also gave me an overview of the current broadband projects in Cook County, including the Arrowhead Electric Broadband Project and the Northeastern Services Cooperative Project.  I will be serving on the Fiber Optic Commission which typically meets monthly.  I am also the liaison to the Information Systems Management Department.   

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Board of Commissioners Meeting---First Regular Meeting of 2011

Today was the first regular meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners; highlights of the meeting are below.  A complete copy of the meeting agenda and minutes will be posted on the County's website at

Sheriff's Response Unit (SRU) Snowmobiles
The County Board unanimously approved Sheriff Falk's proposal to transfer ownership of (3) older snowmobiles (1990, 1991, 1994) that are no longer in use by the SRU to local volunteer fire departments and/or first responder units.  The first transfer will be to the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department (GTVFD) for rescue missions within their response area.  The other (2) snowmobiles will be transferred based on interest and need.

Annual Review of Permitted Gravel Pits
At its December 8, 2010 meeting the Cook County Planning Commission reviewed (13) gravel permits under consideration for renewal for the 2011 calendar year.  The Planning Commission recommended 10 of those permits for renewal without modification; the remaining (3) permit renewals were also recommended for permit renewal, but only with some modifications.  After some discussion, the County Board approved (9) of the requested permits without change and requested that the Office of Planning and Zoning work with Tim Scannell on the appropriate corrective language for the remaining (4) permits.  These (4) permits will be reviewed at the next County Board meeting.

Conditional Use Permit on Caribou Lake
The County Board approved a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to allow the extended use of a recreational vehicle for habitation on property adjacent to Caribou Lake.  The Planning Commission recommended this approval with (8) conditions, including limiting the hours of generator operation to between the hours of 8:00 am and 7:00 pm.  Bill Lane (OPZ) informed the Board that the noise from the generator was the only real concern raised by the neighbors.  I made a motion to approve the CUP as proposed by the Planning Commission, but it died for lack of a 2nd.  After some discussion, a second motion was made which included extending the hours of generator operation to 10:00 pm and a requirement to build an insulated box around the generator.  This motion passed 3-2 with Jim Johnson and Sue Hakes opposed;  Commissioner Johnson and I were both in support of the Planning Commission recommendation without modification.

County Assessor/Land Commissioner Issues
County Assessor Mary Black requested the Board support the Minnesota Association of County Land Commissioners (MACLC) recommendation to move the administration of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Revenue.  The County Board voted unanimously to support this change with a letter from Chair Jim Johnson.

Mary Black, with support from ACMU Vice-President Chuck Silence, presented a draft letter from the Arrowhead Coalition of Multiple Use (ACMU) to US Representative Chip Cravaack requesting that the procedures for developing and implementing forest plans, or modifying existing plans be redesigned for improved efficiency, consistency and cost effectiveness.  The County Board agreed unanimously to write a companion letter to Rep. Cravaack in support of streamlining the existing process.

Appointments to Boards and Commissions
The County Board reviewed the Board and Commission assignments making the following changes:
1.  The Broad Band Task Force is obsolete and has been replaced by the Fiber Optic Commission.  Of course this was extremely disappointing to me as I had been named the County Board representative on the Broad Band Task Force.  Alternatively, I was named as the alternate to Bruce Martinson on the Fiber Optic Commission.  My intention is to be very involved in the FOC as the opportunity for Broadband evolves in Cook County.  Bruce and I agreed to work together positively on this important Commission. 2.  The County Board also recommended me as the replacement for Bob Fenwick on the Superior Resource Advisory Committee (RAC) as authorized under Title II of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (Public Law 110-343), so I will be making application for that position. 

There are still several Board openings for Citizen participation.  If you are interested in becoming a member of the Airport Advisory Commission, Community Center Board, NE MN Housing Consortium Advisory Committee, Planning Commission or the Public Health and Human Services Advisory Committee, please contact Braidy Powers at 387-3646 or

See complete list of County Board and Commission Assignments.

1 % Project Updates
Commissioner Fritz Sobanja provided an update on the Grand Marais Library expansion project including the DSGW Architectural Firm's preliminary rendition of the building exterior and interior floorplans.

As a member of Community Center ad hoc Committee, I reported that the proposed contract to hire an architectural firm for the Community Center is being prepared by County Attorney Tim Scannell and will be presented to the County Board for review at the 1/18/2011 County Board Meeting.

I suggested that the One Percent Coordination Committee (Hakes, Martinson, Tim Scannell, Braidy Powers) meet to discuss the overall One Percent budget, projects with preliminary approval, projects not yet approved, legislative requirements, project prioritization, schedule, budget, etc. and present to the County Board for discussion in a Work Session to be scheduled.  The County Board supported this action and Bruce Martinson offered to schedule the first meeting with the One Percent Coordination Committee.

Public Input at County Board Meetings
In a sincere effort to increase and improve opportunities for Public Input at County Board Meetings, the Board had 4 yes votes (Hakes, Hall, Johnson, Martinson) to add an "Open Forum" to every County Board meeting for a 6-month trial basis.  Commissioner Sobanja abstained from voting.  During this Open Forum, the public is encouraged to address the County Board with any question, concern or idea related to County Business that they might have.  During the Open Forum period, the County Board will listen and perhaps ask clarifying questions. Comments will be limited to 5 minutes per person.  With Board approval, issues raised during the Open Forum may be added to the existing or future agenda as appropriate.

I advocated for the addition of this Open Forum because it guarantees the Public an opportunity to address the full County Board and allows members of the Public the freedom to address issues which may or may not be on any Board agenda.  It should be noted that the Open Forum is designed to enhance public participation.  Public participation during the regular portion of the County Board meeting will remain as it is.  Generally the County Board is liberal in receiving Public input at regular County Board Meetings, but it is technically at the discretion of the Board Chair to call on members of the Public.  The Open Forum will guarantee opportunities for the public to raise issues.  Coming before the County Board in person is a powerful way for the Public to address the Commissioners.  I'm hopeful that Cook County residents and taxpayers will take advantage of the Open Forum as they need to.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Praying for the dead and the wounded of Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucsan.  Holding their families, friends, and community in my heart.

Searching inside for better ways to reach out, talk with, understand and work with those different from me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

More Getting Up to Speed

It's been a busy, productive week and it's only Thursday!  Immediately after Tuesday's first County Board Meeting of the year, I attended my first Advisory Board Meeting--Public Health & Human Services Advisory Committee.  Updates from the Human Services provider organizations, as well as agency reports were an excellent overview for me as a new member to the Board.

And, in an effort to get up to speed with the various departments and functions of Cook County, I met with several more departments.  I appreciate the willingness and time being taken by the various department heads to give me a broad understanding of their work, personnel and challenges.

County Department Tours
County Attorney Tim Scannell was gracious enough to spend a couple of hours with me yesterday to discuss the Office of the County Attorney's roles and responsibilities, both criminal and civil.  We also discussed the County Attorney's relationship to the County Board, sub-committees, the City of Grand Marais, and the public. 

Sherriff Mark Falk and I met this morning for several hours regarding the Sherriff's Department and its operations.  Sherriff Falk also gave me an overview on the NE Regional Radio Board and the ARMER project.  I will be the delegate to that board, with Sheriff Falk as alternate, so it was very helpful to learn more about ARMER and other communication challenges faced by law enforcement.

As a way to learn more about the Cook County Soil & Water Board, District Manager Kerri Fabius invited me to attend this afternoon's Cook County Soil & Water regular board meeting.  It was a good meeting to attend with a Soil Survey Report Presentation from USDA-NRCS Scientist Roger Risley.

And, last Monday, I attended a reception for Judge Michael Cuzzo in the Cook County Courtroom.  The event was a comfortable way to meet Cook County's newly elected Judge as well as others working in Court Administration and related areas in Cook County.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Taking the Oath of Office

I was honored to take the Oath of Office for the position of District 3 Commissioner at today's Special Organizational Meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.  Also taking the Oath of Office were Commissioner Jan Hall (District 1), Commissioner Bruce Martinson (District 5), Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers, Attorney Tim Scannell, Recorder Dusty Nelms and Sheriff Mark Falk. 

County Board Chair and Vice Chair
The first order of business today was to elect a County Board Chair and Vice Chair; Jim Johnson and Jan Hall were unanimously elected to those positions, respectively. 

Official County Publications
The Cook County News Herald and the Cook County Web Page were designated as the official newspaper and publications of the County.

Citizen Boards & Commissions
The Board of Commissioners is seeking citizens to serve on several Boards and Commissions.  Contact Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers at 387-3640 or with interest in serving on any of the following:  Airport Advisory Committee, Extension Committee, Library Board, or Planning Commission.

2011 Commissioner Appointments to Boards, Commissions and Temporary Committees
A significant portion of today's Board Meeting was spent assigning the Commissioners to the over 100 Boards, Commissions and Committees we will serve on throughout 2011 which meet anywhere from monthly to annually throughout Northern Minnesota and in St. Paul.  The assignments will be compiled for another review at next week's County Board Meeting; once finalized, I'll post that list.

2011 Commissioner Departmental Liaison Assignments
County Department Liaison Assignments were agreed to as follows:
  • Sue Hakes:  Public Health/Human Services, Information Systems Management
  • Bruce Martinson:  Auditor/Treasurer, Recorder, Highway Department
  • Jim Johnson:  Attorney, Assessor/Land Commissioner, Court Administration
  • Janice Hall:  Personnel, Sheriff, Planning & Zoning
  • Fritz Sobanja:  Extension, Community Center, Maintenance
Open Forum and Work Session Discussion
A discussion was held regarding the possibility of adding a Public Comment period to County Board Meetings.  I fully support this addition to future agendas.  Providing an opportunity for the Public to address the Board with questions, concerns or ideas is an excellent way for the County Board to hear from the Public and begin meaningful dialogue.

Work sessions, in addition to the regularly scheduled Board meetings, were also discussed.  I fully support holding work sessions for the Board to discuss and process some of the more complex issues that come before us.  Examples of such issues that I would like to see discussed in a work session would include:  establishing County Priorities, One Percent Sales Tax prioritization and management, budget, team building and the Economic Development Authority (EDA).  The addition of Public Comment and Work Sessions to the County's process of doing business will be discussed again.