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County board duels over admin position

CRYSTAL FALLS—Iron County Board of Commissioner meetings can be quiet affairs. However, this was not the case for the May 14 meeting of the board, which – following the active April meeting preceding it – proved to be more energetic than usual.
    The new business facing the board this month proved to be fractious, particularly when the matter of a three-year employment agreement for the county administrator position came up. The agreement would directly impact current administrator Gene Smith, who if the measure passed, would be rehired at a cost to the county of over $81,000.
    Commissioner Mike Stafford began the discussion by commending Smith’s abilities when it came to procedural questions and situations, but also stated that there were clarity issues pertaining to job descriptions that needed to be addressed. The agreement had an “out” that could be exercised later in the year by either party, and with several larger projects coming down the road, Stafford made a motion to accept the agreement while those projects were in gestation. Chair Patti Peretto supported the motion.
    Stafford, however, did express some uncertainty over the long-term viability of the county administrator position, stating a thorough review of it could be done later in the year. Immediately after Peretto supported the motion, Commissioner Tim Aho stated that only 25 percent of counties the size of Iron County have this position at all.
    Aho went on to say that the county administrator position costs too much for what the county gets out of it. Comparing Iron County with another county of similar size, he stated that the administrator at that location also handles EMS and Central Dispatch at less cost to that county than what is seen here. He also compared the county’s situation with Gogebic County’s, with its administrator costing only $51,000.
    Aho concluded that he had attempted to re-engineer the position during his time as county chair three years ago but there was little interest for that at the time. He stated that the county ran fine without an administrator for months during a previous transition in administrators, and as such was not inclined to support the motion.
    Peretto then spoke up, saying three years ago that she’d mentioned that she thought the position was superfluous as-is, but then said she went with it with the view of reworking the position – merging roles together – at a later time. However, she’d not heard anything about the position since then, until now. Like Stafford, she was reticent to do anything to the position until the incoming major projects later in the year had been resolved, and after more county-level housecleaning had been performed internally.
    Peretto capped off her recollection of the events of that time by stating that she thought “everyone remembers things a little differently than other people.” This begun a line of conversation between Peretto and Aho, the latter responding that by the time a final decision is made, the county will have spent another $240,000 on the position. The discussion then morphed into a comparative analysis of Peretto’s and Aho’s respective approaches to this situation, with Peretto stating that Aho should have talked about it earlier, and Aho stating that Peretto should have put the item on the agenda earlier in the year.
    Smith spoke up soon afterwards, mentioning that while he was not intimately familiar with the positions Aho brought up, he suspected that they were salary figures. As such, they may not necessarily include benefits like health insurance or pensions, which would add thousands more to the cost beyond the list price. Smith stated that he does not operate with those benefits in place, which would have cost the county another $30,000 to $35,000.
    Peretto and Aho briefly resumed their debate, before Commissioner Sharon Leonoff then rhetorically asked Peretto if they would have had this discussion during a time when the contract was not immediately under review, which then briefly brought her into the other discussion that Peretto and Aho had engaged in. Leonoff then said that regardless of past actions, the board was reviewing the situation now.
    Commissioner Ray Coates then brought up the matter from his perspective, stating that he had multiple conversations with Smith over the course of the year regarding this situation, and that during those conversations Smith indicated that he was open to working part time. He then went on to say that the county should take a harder look at its finances, and also investigate 911 more closely.
    The exchange between the board members did not progress much further than this. The vote for the agreement came up soon after Coates’ statement; he voted against it, along with Aho and Leonoff. Peretto and Stafford were for the agreement.
    As such, the agreement failed to pass, which as put the future of the county administrator in a state of flux. Toward the end of the meeting, Sheriff Mark Valesano stated that he hoped the position would ultimately be retained, and that he was going to discuss the matter with the board over the coming days.

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