Jan. 16, 2008
Board backs Mitchell; critics foresee
The St. Louis County Board voted Tuesday to negotiate
a contract with former County Attorney Alan Mitchell to become interim
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
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
“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
“That’s all long behind me,’’
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
“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
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
The position is expected to pay between $101,000
and $135,000 in 2008.