Denfeld News

Jan. 16, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Board backs Mitchell; critics foresee friction

The St. Louis County Board voted Tuesday to negotiate a contract with former County Attorney Alan Mitchell to become interim county administrator.

If a successful contract is negotiated, Mitchell would take over for outgoing administrator Dana Frey, who is leaving Feb. 8 to take a position in Bosnia. Frey has held the post since April 2004.

The board voted 5-2 for Mitchell. He was the only candidate among four applicants forwarded to the full board from a board workshop on Monday.

While the process was supposed to remain anonymous, open discussion Tuesday revealed the other candidates as former St. Louis County Sheriff Gary Waller, current deputy administrator Gary Eckenberg and current deputy administrator Lisa Potswald.

Supporters said Mitchell was the best-qualified for the job, noting he has extensive knowledge of the county and proven leadership and management skills.

But critics say the appointment will deepen rifts in county government that have bubbled over since Mitchell lost his bid for re-election in November 2006 by 88 votes to Melanie Ford.

“I still have something to offer the County Board and the people of St. Louis County,’’ Mitchell said Tuesday. He did not attend the board meeting.

Mitchell said he has been enjoying retirement but that he wants to remain active until his wife retires as Hibbing police chief in coming years.

While an amendment was defeated that would have placed a deadline of July 31 on Mitchell’s service, Mitchell and county commissioners said it was unlikely Mitchell would apply or be accepted as the permanent county commissioner.

“I’m completely happy with that, whether it’s 60 days or six months. It’s not my intention that this become permanent,’’ Mitchell said.

It’s not clear when the County Board will take up the search for a full-time replacement for Frey. Eckenberg said no timetable has been set to fill the position permanently. In the past, the board has used both internal human resources staff and external candidate search companies to fill the post.

Commissioner Keith Nelson of Virginia said the board should use the interim period to look closer at whether to make major changes in how county government operated, such as considering moving to a county manager or other form of county administration.

Mitchell, 62, was first elected county attorney in 1978 and ran unopposed for re-election six times until he was defeated by Ford. Mitchell’s presence again within the county courthouse in Duluth could make for some uncomfortable moments as he’ll sit across the board room from Ford.

But Ford said she harbors no ill-feelings toward Mitchell or his supporters. Mitchell said likewise.

“I wish Alan Mitchell well in his new position and I’m sure he’ll do a good job,’’ Ford said.

“That’s all long behind me,’’ Mitchell said.

Others said hiring Mitchell was a return to the divisive politics that have split the board in recent years. Sam Haddad of Duluth, a county public works employee, said the move was another sign of disrespect toward Ford, whom he claimed has been repeatedly disrespected by several commissioners.

Others suggested that Mitchell’s presence will diminish efforts to put complaints of sexual harassment behind the County Board. They noted that Mitchell declined to pursue allegations of sexual harassment on female employees by County Board members, while Ford moved ahead with the cases.

Mitchell, by then out of office, then represented Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing against the allegations.

Haddad said the two internal candidates, Eckenberg and Potswald, were just as qualified as Mitchell and that their appointment could have saved the county thousands of dollars.

“Let’s not spend money we don’t have,’’ Haddad said.

Other residents who gave public comments said it was an indication the board remains unwilling to accept the will of the voters in 2006. But County Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely disagreed.

“It had nothing to do with that election. It’s trying … to find the right person to lead St. Louis County into the future,’’ Forsman said.

Commissioners Peg Sweeney and Steve O’Neil of Duluth voted against offering Mitchell a contract. Commissioners Dennis Fink and Bill Kron of Duluth, Raukar, Forsman and Nelson voted yes.

The county administrator is responsible for the general supervision of county departments, institutions and agencies. The directors of 12 departments report directly to the administrator. The position also oversees many of the 1,970 county employees and helps the seven commissioners set the county’s $334 million budget.

The position is expected to pay between $101,000 and $135,000 in 2008.

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