— Nearly a year after being hired as the Kandiyohi County Administrator and six months after officially taking on the post, Kelsey Baker has been named
one of three finalists for the city of West Fargo, North Dakota, administrator job
"I am grateful for this opportunity. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I would make it this far," Baker said following the Kandiyohi County Board meeting on Tuesday.
Baker added that she has family and friends who live in the Fargo-Moorhead area and she has always been intrigued by West Fargo, a city she called forward-thinking. West Fargo is set to interview the three finalists for the administrator position, including Baker, on Tuesday, Sept. 26, and could name its finalist for the job soon after that.
When asked if her decision to apply for the West Fargo position had anything to do with her six-month performance evaluation that reportedly lasted several hours, Baker said she didn't want to comment on that now but that she would be making a public statement after she finds out if she will be taking the job in West Fargo or remaining in Kandiyohi County.
She did say she feels her current overall relationship with
Kandiyohi County Board
is positive. The performance evaluation was conducted during a closed session on Aug. 15.
"We are still in this transition period, people don't remember that it's been six months. There was a four-month transition prior to me coming on board and I've only been here six months," Baker said. "I don't think we are really shining where we are supposed to be quite yet, but we are working on getting there, working towards a positive direction."
Baker wanted to make sure the public understands she still is just a candidate for the job in West Fargo and that she remains committed to Kandiyohi County, its staff and citizens for as long as she remains employed with the county. She said she would like the county, from an organizational standpoint and on a larger level, to capitalize more on what it has to offer people.
"Just the wealth of life you can have here," Baker said. "How do we make this a truly great place to live, because it already is."
At Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Steve Gardner, vice chair of the board who was acting as chair in Commissioner Roger Imdieke's absence Tuesday, read a prepared statement sharing his thoughts regarding the six-month evaluation Baker was given in August.
brief summary of the evaluation was approved 3 to 2
by the commissioners at the Sept. 5 meeting. Gardner and Commissioner Dale Anderson voted against the motion. Imdieke had disallowed any discussion regarding the evaluation or the public statement based on what he called counsel advice. Gardner wasn't pleased with that decision or the public statement, feeling it didn't adequately express what Baker has been doing the last six months.
"I voted against the statement, not because discussion of it would have revealed too much, but because this tepid, and even insulting, public statement didn't say enough about who Kelsey Baker is," Gardner said at the Sept. 19 meeting. "And in short, her job performance has been nothing short of spectacular in this commissioner's eyes."
Gardner said with the changing circumstances around the administrator post, with Baker having applied for the West Fargo position, he wanted to share his thoughts about Baker's performance in Kandiyohi County.
"She took this position against strong prevailing headwinds, with various others in the organization believing that we made an egregious error in her hiring," Gardner said, an opinion he does not share.
Baker was hired by the Kandiyohi County Board
unanimously on Oct. 18, 2022, though she was named the
board's final choice on Sept. 27, 2022
. The other two finalists for the position were former Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Director Jennifer Lippert and Cassandra Harvey from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
Gardner said on Tuesday that there were concerns raised when several staff left the county after Baker's hiring, including Lippert and the deputy auditor. In his opinion, Gardner said those who left made a personal decision based on multiple reasons and their choices should not be viewed as a reflection on Baker or her leadership.
"To think so would be to ignore a rather simple truth: Whenever there is a change in leadership in any organization, there will be voluntary turnover, just as certain as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west," Gardner said.
Gardner went on to highlight some of the work Baker has done over the last six months as the Kandiyohi County administrator, much of which has centered around the retention and recruitment of employees. These actions include a 5% wage increase for all employees, and asking administrative staff to come up with more ideas that were approved by the board, such as the redistribution of health insurance premiums and changes to the salary schedule. She has made the decision to maintain office hours in the downtown County Office Building as she worked to build relationship and trust with staff.
"Kelsey dove right in and began cultivating followership and buy-in for a common shared vision among the rank and file as well as senior staff," Gardner said.
Gardner said he finds Baker refreshing and someone who freely speaks what is on her mind during conversations, is self-aware and open to having conversations with other strong personalities. Since Baker served as the Swift County administrator for five years, she does have knowledge about running a county, but is also willing to learn from others.
"We hired Kelsey to bring a fresh set of eyes to the county and its operations, and I am today more than ever convinced that we made an astute choice," Gardner said.
Gardner also had some words for those unnamed persons within the county organization that did not share his views of Baker and her tenure in Kandiyohi County.
"For those cold and timid souls who are made uncomfortable with Kelsey's candid assessment of where Kandiyohi County stands among its peers, their lack of imagination for what could be and preference for what was saddens me," Gardner said.
Regardless of what happens next week, it looks like Baker has a strong supporter in Gardner.
"Kelsey, for this commissioner you are more than enough. You have thrown your entire being into this work and our county is already seeing those efforts, and those of the entire administrative team, pay off," Gardner said. "As the next week and months play out, I just want you to know that I see you and appreciate you in the strongest possible terms. Thank you for taking a chance on us."
Baker was appreciative of the words Gardner shared and for the support he and others have given her.
"It was very heartwarming," Baker said. "I applaud what he said and I am very grateful for what he said and some of the board members really feel that way and want us to move in a positive direction."