Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Committee plan from staff passes despite commissioner pushback

Jan. 18—WILLMAR

— Nearly two years after the

Kandiyohi County Board

unanimously agreed to cease holding semimonthly Health and Human Services committee meetings, at the endorsement of then-County Administrator Larry Kleindl and HHS Director Jennie Lippert, current department director Caroline Chan is recommending they come back, but in a different format.

"We recognize the positive influence that would have on our decision-making and for our services and our staff," Chan said.

At the Jan. 16 county board meeting, Chan requested the board approve a plan from the HHS management team to create a new committee that would include two county board members plus department staff. This committee would meet monthly and be able to take an even deeper dive into the department's work without having to worry about client privacy issues because the meetings would not be open to the public. Chan and her team also recommended at minimum two work sessions a year with the entire county board, which would be open to the public, with the possibility of additional work sessions as needed.

These committee meetings and work sessions would not preclude HHS issues, contracts, and updates from coming to the regular county board meeting, as they do now. Any programs, contracts and the like that would need county board approval must be taken up at a regular county board meeting. Chan was looking for a commitment to the plan for 2024 and then a revisit of it at the end of the year.

"Things change quickly so we anticipate through the next year there will be pivots and needed changes," Chan said.

The approval of the HHS plan was eventually secured but on a split 3-2 vote. Voting against the measure were Commissioners Corky Berg and Roger Imdieke, both of whom had problems with the staff recommendation. One issue is they felt the commissioners didn't have enough say in the creation of the committee rebuild plan and didn't have enough information about the makeup of the proposed committee and its mission and goals.

"I am really not comfortable with the recommendation because I don't know enough about what is in that recommendation," Imdieke said. "Who is going to sit on that committee, how is it going to work?"

Chan said it was her aim for the first work session to be held shortly, and during it, the entire county board would be able to decide which commissioners would serve on it, assist in deciding on the remaining membership, and come up with some goals and priorities. She said she didn't feel it was her place to dictate how the committee would look.

"My intent was that to be a collective decision," Chan said.

Berg also raised concerns about not hearing enough about what is happening in HHS, one of the county's largest departments.

"I view my role as a county commissioner to provide oversight and know what is happening," Berg said. "We are voting on these things and we have to be able to find out about our staff and be supportive of our staff."

Berg made a motion to require Chan and the HHS department to make monthly reports to the county board, as a way to make sure the board is hearing about what is going on. Despite Berg's concern that the board isn't hearing from HHS, since Chan took over as director of HHS in July 2023, issues about the department have been on the county board meeting agenda — either as consent agenda items or general discussion and action items — every meeting except two times.

Imdieke seconded the motion, but it failed 3 to 2, with the majority of the board — Commissioners Steve Gardner, Dale Anderson and Duane Anderson — voting against it.

"I would rather have them come when they have something that needs to be brought up," said Dale Anderson. "I don't want to say you have to be here every month. We don't do that for any other department."

The decision to do away with the bimonthly HHS committee meetings, which were held before the regular board meeting on the first and third Tuesdays of the month and had the entire county board in attendance, was made in February 2022. It was brought to the board's attention by then-HHS Director Lippert and former County Administrator Kleindl. The thought was having HHS treated like any other county department, who came to the board when needed, would be a more efficient use of the staff and board's time. Work sessions could be held if needed.

It could also open up more time for the county board to hear from other departments more often. Lippert said in February 2022 that it was sometimes difficult to come up with items to talk about during the committee meetings. Kleindl said departments such as Community Corrections and Veterans Services were added to the HHS meetings to ensure there was time to hear from them.

"You're not losing anything, how we present is going to be different," Kleindl said at the Feb. 1, 2022, HHS meeting.

Berg and Imdieke were approached by Lippert and Kleindl about the issue prior to it coming to the full board in 2022 and they were supportive of the change.

"This seemed like the simplest and most logical way, just make it one big board meeting we'd have," Berg said at the Feb. 1, 2022, HHS Committee meeting, adding that it could always be changed if it wasn't working out.

At the Jan. 16, 2024, meeting, Berg said some of the reasons the committee was discontinued were impacts of the coronavirus pandemic along with the transition to a new administrator and HHS director.

However, the decision to stop the committee meetings were made a year before Kleindl retired and Lippert resigned and, in that time and moving forward, few if any work sessions were held on HHS matters.

Chan said that many of the HHS supervisors on the management team that developed the new committee structure were around when the old committee was in place. They still decided to go with this new idea and not go back to the way it was.

"They still put forth this recommendation because they felt this would be a good start to the work they want to engage with you," Chan said.

The three commissioners who supported the recommended plan agreed it was a good place to start. It was also coming from the staff directly impacted by the policy, and the commissioners felt it was important to support that.

"I don't want to tell you what to do," Dale Anderson said. "If you feel this is where you want to start, then that is what we should do."

The first full board work session under this new committee structure will be held on Feb. 20, following the regular county board meeting. At that work session, the committee's structure will be hammered out, and there will be discussions about committee priorities and goals. From there, the monthly committee meetings will commence, with at least one more work session, if not more, during the year.

"I like the incremental move back to something like this," Gardner said. "It is a good first step."