Chair pushes for watershed assessment opposition

Contributed photo
Becker County Board of Commissioners: John Okeson, Richard Vareberg, Barry Nelson, David Meyer, Erica Jepson.

By Robert Williams

Editor

A proposal by Becker County Commissioners Board Chairman Barry Nelson to add a 6-month evaluation of County Administrator Pat Oman to the agenda of the upcoming July 18 meeting turned into 20 minutes of heated exchanges between multiple board members. 

In a dated offer letter to Oman that was shared with the commissioners by Nelson, two satisfactory performance evaluations were scheduled for Oman six months apart with the last being held in December. 

Nelson opened up the conversation for any objections to holding the evaluation at the July 18 meeting and got one from Oman.

“This is news to me,” said Oman. “You guys did a one-year, annual review at the end of the year, per the agreement. You guys can do reviews anytime that you want, but we’re on schedule to do an annual review each year in correspondence to the county’s personnel policies. So, I just want the board to keep that in mind. The next review scheduled for myself would be the end of this year. If you feel you need to do another one, have at it.”

Oman stated the document shared with the board is out-of-date and human resources should be involved.

“I think there needs to be a little more discussion about this,” said Oman. “This hasn’t been brought to my attention and I expect human resources probably isn’t aware of it either. So, I would expect there should be some discussion before you make a motion like that.”

Nelson reiterated there was supposed to be two, six-month evaluations.

“I think this is fair, regardless that you think it should be annual, I plan on putting it on the agenda at the next meeting,” said Nelson.

Oman followed up that human resources should be involved before the board goes ahead with an evaluation.

“There really should be some direction from the board to the HR director; this should be placed on the agenda of a future meeting and you should have some discussion here,” Oman said. “Like I said, this is a little bit of a surprise and that’s not what boards should be doing. So, I would recommend that the board put on the next agenda for discussion so you guys can evaluate it and the human resources director—that’s her specific role—to be involved, especially, when it comes to the county administrator and with all other employees. It isn’t following a good practice here and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Okeson stated an annual review is sufficient and commissioner Richard Vareberg stated he did not see any need to do it twice a year.

Nelson stated a first six-month review was never done and it would be prudent to do it in July.

Oman spoke up, but was rebuked by Nelson swiftly.

“I think you should be acknowledged by the board chair before you speak, so if you want to speak please acknowledge and you’re not recognized,” said Nelson.

Oman continued to talk about HR being involved, while Nelson interrupted stating Oman was not recognized and the duo continued to talk over one another until Okeson and Vareberg stepped in.

“This is a special thing between you and him and I think he’s been doing a good job,” said Vareberg. 

Nelson and Vareberg continued to argue the point.

“You brought this up and nobody else knew about it,” said Vareberg. “You’ve done other stuff that nobody else knew about and I don’t know why we would start looking over him (Oman) twice a year when we didn’t look over the last guys twice a year. If you want to pick on him, just say, ‘Hey, I want to pick on this guy’ and that’s what you’re doing. I don’t want to pick on him. He’s doing a really good job.”

Nelson reiterated he was bringing the evaluation to the board to seek approval to have it on the agenda of the next meeting or not and would listen to the board.

Commissioner Erica Jepson calmed the meeting down.

“I think having a review is an opportunity for the board to communicate concerns or strengths, just the same as for the employee, in this case Pat, to express,” she said. “I don’t know that it would hurt to have an additional review, so I would be in favor of having a review at the next meeting.”

“I think it’s good to have reviews,” Meyer said, before being interrupted by multiple speakers.

Vareberg won out stating his support for Oman and took a shot at Nelson in the process.

“He (Oman) should have a full year to show what he’s been doing to the new commissioners; he hasn’t had a full year,” said Vareberg. “They’ve been with him for a half a year. We never did it before; we’re doing it now. We didn’t do it on the last guy and we probably should have.”

After Nelson claimed he was not willing to get into that discussion, Vareberg continued.

“I’m trying to go forward here and make things work in the county,” Vareberg said. “You’re the guy that said we want to work together, but we’ve got a lot of issues to work out here and we’ve got real work to do and we’ve got somebody to do it and he’s doing a good job of it.”

Nelson tried to get a vote started on whether or not the evaluation should be put on the next agenda and he would abide by the majority rule, but Vareberg was not having it.

“We can go ahead and waste time on evaluations and start fights instead of working for the county,” he said. “We can either do our job, work for the county or we can fight about it. I don’t know; I guess you want to fight about it. We’re having a discussion on picking on Pat, that’s what we’re doing.”

“I don’t think anyone is picking on anybody,” said Jepson.

The board sat in silence prior to another eruption from Vareberg blaming Nelson for bringing the evaluation up because of his own issues with Oman.

Nelson finally got the meeting going by tabling the issue upon further input from county human resources director Carrie Smith.

Water Management

The board voted unanimously to not support a Hay Creek Water Management District for the Stinking Lake project to provide maintenance for a flood storage area. The board also voted in opposition to a perpetual payment for landowners in the specific area.

According to a public notice on an upcoming meeting about the project, the total estimated water management district fee is $35,000, which could be applied on an annual basis to help with project maintenance and future board ordered projects that benefit the Hay Creek Watershed. 

According to Nelson, the $35,000 is an annual assessment that would be charged to landowners in the Stinking Lake project area, which is located between Lake Park and Hawley. Potential cost to landowners is $1 to $2.58 per acre.

Nelson admitted to being one of those landowners and dominated the conversation without a mention of any potential conflict of interest.

“To me, Hay Creek is a flood control project,” said Nelson. “It sets a bad precedent for me when you have a flood control project and you make that district pay for maintenance on it alone. It will be an incentive not to have flood control projects in any of these sub-watersheds.

“It really concerns me if you start piling on a $35,000 charge annually, into perpetual. Now you are taking this money and this watershed, giving it back to them, plus you’re being taxed the regular amount and that’s giving it to all the other sub-watershed districts in the area. I have a real, uneasy feeling about that. If there was a specific project that’s what I feel. For ongoing maintenance, I don’t know how you tax your specific sub-watershed and this is the first one they’ve done. $2.58 an acre is a big charge just for an add-on, for something that you benefit nothing from, except for the overall betterment of the watershed and the bigger watershed.”

Nelson “wondered” if the board would be willing to create a resolution stating his concerns and opposition to the assessment. 

“I’m asking for it, is the board interested in sending a resolution stating we are not supportive of this fee for this sub-watershed to maintain a project that benefits the whole watershed?”

Commissioner John Okeson responded that supporting it would allow other sub-watershed districts to be charged in similar fashion.

“I don’t have a problem if every sub-watershed district has a similar fee to maintain projects or promote projects with it, but to isolate one is very concerning,” Nelson said.

Commissioner David Meyer amended a portion of his motion noting there will be some flexibility allowed in the creation of the written resolution and the motion was passed unanimously.

“Flood control is for everyone downstream,” said Nelson. “If every sub-watershed had the same fee, I’m fine with it then.”

A public hearing for the establishment of the Hay Creek Water Management District for the Stinking Lake Project was scheduled for Monday July 10, at 5:30 p.m., at the Watershed Office, 1303 4th AVE NE, in Barnesville. The meeting was also held virtually at www.brrwd.org. 

The Stinking Lake project was established by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District (BRRWD) Board of Managers on June 27, 1990, and was constructed in 1990. This project established 5,159 acre-feet of flood storage to the Hay Creek Watershed. Due to continued annual maintenance expenses, the Board of Managers requested Houston Engineering, Inc., develop a water management district for the Hay Creek Watershed on June 13, 2022. Houston Engineering, Inc submitted the Hay Creek Watershed Water Management District Charge Determination to BRRWD Board of Managers on April 27, 2023. The proposed water management district is open to the public for inspection during business hours at the watershed office and available at www.brrwd.org. 

Project features eligible for funding as part of the proposed water management district include the operation and maintenance of the Stinking Lake outlet structure, Hay Creek and its structures, as it relates to the function of the Stinking Lake Project, between the Stinking Lake outlet structure and the Buffalo River, and other BRRWD Board ordered projects that benefit the Hay Creek Watershed. 

County Museum

The board approved a contribution of $5,000 from the special general fund for the upcoming DaVinci exhibit that will run from Sept. 17-Jan. 7. According to Becker County Historical Society Executive Director Becky Mitchell the total raised for the $90,000 exhibit is at $31,000, including the county’s $5,000 and a recent donation from the city of Detroit Lakes in the same amount Mitchell’s goal is to raise at least $45,000.

The board agreed to revisit the issue in the fall prior to the opening of the show to assess the financial need at that time.

“The response has been very, very positive,” said Mitchell. “I would anticipate we will see quite a few folks traveling from a 90-mile radius. The response to the museum locally has been great thus far, but it’s a bigger animal, that whole facility, so we have to continue to attract beyond our local region with exhibits like this. We don’t always have to have a great, big $90,000 exhibit, but that was always the vision. Maybe one to two times a year, depending on time, cost, all the factors, that we’re pulling in something that is an opportunity for learning. What’s great about this exhibit is the educational component of it.”

The museum held its grand opening Friday, July 7.

Appointments

Okeson and Meyer were both appointed to the Becker County Recreational Advisory Committee Board that includes: Hank Ludtke (District 3), Karen Mulari (Dist. 1), Paige Perry (Dist. 2), Del Bergseth (Dist. 4), Mark Knutson (Dist. 6) and Phil Hansen (Dist. 7). District 5 was vacant.