Review of Kandiyohi County Administrator Kelsey Baker airs positives, concerns and challenges in open forum

Feb. 7—WILLMAR

— Following her six-month review in August 2023 and

the controversy that swirled up around it

, Kandiyohi County Administrator Kelsey Baker requested to have her annual performance review open to the public.

It was conducted at the conclusion of the Feb. 6 Kandiyohi County Board meeting.

"This is not something I have ever done in this role, in an open session, but I think because of past practice, I felt it was something I should try, based off of my six-month performance review," Baker said.

Baker was

hired unanimously

by the Kandiyohi County Board in October 2022 and

took over as county administrator

in February 2023, after the retirement of Larry Kleindl. The transition has been rocky at times, with some commissioners not being comfortable with how Baker has run things and the decisions and recommendations she has made.

"That was not an easy transition," Baker said of the four months between her hiring and actually taking over, and it continued to be challenging once she was in charge.

"Sometimes I am being held accountable for things I had no control of coming into Kandiyohi County. Change is hard. Some people don't do well with change," she said.

Each of the commissioners was given the opportunity to share thoughts and rankings of Baker's work during her first year. Those grades and comments showed differences of opinions between commissioners, not just about Baker and her performance, but also how commissioners expect the county to operate.

Most of the feedback given to Baker was positive, especially regarding her leadership, problem-solving, creativity and judgment. She also got high marks for her dedication to staff and wanting to make Kandiyohi County a top choice for employment.

"In short, I feel she is the breath of fresh air this county needs," said Commissioner Steve Gardner. "Certainly, when someone comes in under the circumstances she did, there are going to be some bumps in the road, particularly when sometimes you have folks who have become accustomed to 'this is the way we've always done it.'"

Commissioner Dale Anderson said the County Board itself deserves blame for the issues Baker has faced during her first year.

"I feel she hasn't had the opportunity to know where the County Board really wants her to go yet because we have not done a strategic plan and have not given her fair guidance as a board yet," Dale Anderson said. "I think that is a big thing. That is our job and it is our problem we need to solve, more than it is something she needs to solve."

Baker said she certainly did not do everything right in her first year and that at times she can be a bit abrasive or assertive and she is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she said, she never tries to be vindictive and mean.

Because of the challenging transition between administrators, Baker said she believes she may not have gotten off to the best start with some department heads.

"I think that is perfectly normal in a transition period. That is not something I should be kept in the dark on, regarding department heads talking to commissioners without talking to me." Baker said, and going forward Baker hopes that will change and she can build better relationships with department heads and staff.

The negative assessments about Baker's performance mostly came from Commissioners Roger Imdieke and Corky Berg, who have been the most publicly outspoken about Baker's tenure over the last year.

Berg focused on the concerns he has about the county's finances and budgets under Baker's leadership.

He said that during the last budgeting cycle, the commissioners did not get enough information on how salary increases along with changes to the wage structure and health insurance costs were going to impact the county's budget. Those changes were approved unanimously by the board.

Berg also said he does not agree with using county reserves to help pay for employee wages and benefits.

He wants the board to be given more time to dive into the budget and would like Baker to be more conservative in regard to finances. Berg did say the board shares some of the responsibility regarding how the 2024 budget was created, and that there is a lot that everyone can learn from it.

"I'm not implying the sky is falling in at all, but I am implying this is a very serious situation we have to take control of so we don't have the problems the auditor said we could possibly have," Berg said.

In her response to some of the commissioners' comments, Baker said she used the communication patterns that were set up by her predecessor and accepted by the board as a guideline when she relayed budget information to the commissioners.

"I am looking to do things differently now this next year and maybe change some of that stuff," Baker said. She also said there will be quarterly financial reports at the board meetings and budget work sessions during the year.

Even with his financial worries, Berg said he has been pleased with some of Baker's work and agrees that she has many strengths and skills.

"I'm very glad we have her, on many aspects," Berg said.

When giving his report, Imdieke said he wouldn't be sharing all of his critiques, choosing to keep them private and between him and Baker.

The concerns he did share include the need for better communication between Baker and himself as board chair; improved running of the County Board meetings; ensuring the commissioners get all the information they need; and allowing for more opportunities for full board discussions with such things as work sessions. In her job Baker is supposed to administer on behalf of the board, not make decisions on behalf of the board, Imdieke said.

"When opportunities or issues arise, bring options and proposals to the full board to do the job we are elected to do," Imdieke said.

Once the commissioners had their say, Baker was allowed to respond. Imdieke said that was based on legal advice from labor attorney Anne Goering and state statute. Not all the commissioners were happy with that situation, wanting Baker to have the chance to respond as things were discussed.

"She should be able to answer questions and have a dialogue back and forth. We're not in court here," Dale Anderson said.

In her response, Baker said she wasn't going to rebut what commissioners have said, preferring to do that one on one, saying she felt she could clarify some concerns and comments commissioners brought up.

She did point out that some of the feedback or direction she has received has been somewhat contradictory, such as wanting to hear more from the administrator while at the same time wanting her to delegate to department heads and let them lead their departments. She has also been told to have board meetings finish in a timely manner, while also being asked to have more department presentations on the agenda.

"My goal, also, is to have an encouraging culture for employees, to feel valued, to feel heard and to feel appreciated," Baker said.

Since her six-month review, Baker said she has taken time to look internally at herself, work on difficult conversations and do some self-reflection, while dealing with issues on the job that were out of her control.

"I've tried to seek additional clarification to better the situation and, in short, give it my all during this transition and process," Baker said. "No employee is without challenge, even the best employee."

Going forward she would like the board and herself to go through some "good governance" training to understand roles and responsibilities as well as do a strategic planning session, to iron out priorities and projects. As the county continues to face challenges and transitions in a world that continues to shift, Baker requested the board's backing and support.

"I am here to do a job and that is all I ask to do," Baker said. "I just ask that I do have the support to continue to do my job."

The review was concluded without any type of summary or board action. When contacted by the West Central Tribune for comment, in an emailed statement, Imdieke said because the review had been held in an open forum, state statute does not allow for an official board summary.

In a recap of the commissioners' reviews, Imdieke said two commissioners indicated Baker had exceeded their expectations, one said she met those expectations and two stated that most expectations were met, with concerns.

"I look forward to further constructive communication that allows us to make decisions that are in the best interest of Kandiyohi County," Imdieke said.