Strife too much for Smith

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 15, 2001

Freeborn County Administrator Gene Smith is likely to resign from his position in Freeborn County next week to take a similar job in Wisconsin.

Thursday, February 15, 2001

Freeborn County Administrator Gene Smith is likely to resign from his position in Freeborn County next week to take a similar job in Wisconsin.

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Smith said has completed contract negotiations with Dunn County, Wis. The Dunn County Board is expected to give final approval for the hire at its regular board meeting next Wednesday, and Smith said he will then tender his resignation to Freeborn County.

&uot;It’s going to be a tremendous loss to Freeborn County,&uot; said Freeborn County Board of Commissioners Chairman Dave Mullenbach. &uot;He’s one of the smartest men I know. I think we’re going to really miss him.&uot;

Smith, who has been county administrator since 1989, will continue working for Freeborn County until the end of March if he is accepted.

&uot;I chose to leave, to seek other employment, because for the past two years I have been involved and observed a relationship with the policy makers of the county that clearly has, in my opinion, deadlocked at best on most major issues,&uot; Smith said. &uot;At the time I decided to apply for the position, I didn’t know whether or not the newly elected commissioners would be able to act in a more decisive and productive manner.&uot;

&uot;It’s no secret that there has been considerable controversy at both the county board and county administration level,&uot; Smith said. &uot;I made a decision that I was not content with the relationships as they existed and that I did not see that there would be much in the way of change.&uot;

The board has not managed to make decisions on high-profile issues like a new courthouse, and other decisions have become bogged down with in-fighting. Smith said the board’s indecision has been tough to bear.

&uot;What many people don’t appreciate, I suspect, is many times making no decision is as bad as making a bad decision,&uot; Smith said. &uot;It may even be worse. Over the last two years I believe the board as a whole has been frustrated by its inability to reach consensus, and by a lack of cohesiveness even after decisions were made.&uot;

Smith was contacted by an executive search firm on behalf of Dunn County last fall. He applied for the job after the election. It was the first position he had applied for in some time, Smith said.

The Dunn County Board has 29 members, but Smith has worked with large boards before in Whiteside, Ill. He took the job in Dunn County because the government there exhibited the qualities he felt were lacking in Freeborn County politics.

&uot;Dunn County presents itself as a decisive and growing community,&uot; Smith said. &uot;They provided candidates with reams of information to measure the county by and with the opportunity to view county operations. They took the time to discuss what their needs were and what they were looking for.&uot;

&uot;If you went to Dunn County and saw and heard what I saw, I think you would come to the same conclusions: that, as an organization, they demonstrate the ability to tackle issues and implement solutions.&uot;

Menomonie, Wis., the seat of Dunn County, is a university town, and Smith hopes his children will profit by its offerings. It is also near metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities and Eau Claire, Wisc.

&uot;In terms of continuing to raise a family, they offer a blend of small-town living with accessibility to metropolitan areas,&uot; he said.

Smith doesn’t feel like he’s &uot;abandoning ship&uot; by leaving because he feels the new board is competent to handle the change, he said. At the same time, he will miss the opportunity to work with them.

&uot;I now believe that they show every sign of being able to make independent and sound decisions which will be of benefit to the county as a whole,&uot; he said.

Overall, Smith feels like he is leaving a better Freeborn County than he came to 12 years ago. There is a lot to be proud of, he said.

&uot;First and foremost I think I’m proud of a fiscal and tax structure which has shown itself, I think, to be reasonable,&uot; he said. &uot;I believe that the government has consistently asked its constituents to provide only what’s necessary to meet its service demands.&uot;

He is also pleased with the county’s effort to grow into economic development, increasing environmental awareness, and adoption of technology. But mostly he is proud of the people.

&uot;I think I’m most proud of, in spite of all the things that have been divisive, of having been a part of recruiting and retaining staff at both the management and line level who are sincerely concerned about community service,&uot; Smith said. &uot;That’s where I think we’ve done really well.&uot;

Many department heads said they were saddened by Smith’s announcement that he is likely to leave.

&uot;I’m really going to miss working with him as a department head,&uot; said Public Health Director Lois Ahern.

Court Services Director Gary Altfillisch said he and Smith have had a good working relationship over the years.

&uot;He’s been good and fiscally conservative in his role as County Administrator in Freeborn County,&uot; Altfillisch said. &uot;We’ll certainly miss him and his skills and abilities.&uot;

Smith managed to be supportive and challenging at the same time, and was excellent at discovering alternative solutions to problems, Ahern said.

&uot;I certainly have grown a lot in my role as a department manager,&uot; she said.

That Smith is an excellent administrator is evidenced by the fact that he was elected president of the National Association of County Administrators, said county Finance Manager Bill Helfritz.

&uot;That says he’s not run-of-the-mill,&uot; Helfritz said.

&uot;I’ve worked in a lot of different places with some really good people, and I’d have to say Gene is one of the very best in terms of his managing skills and abilities,&uot; said Environmental Services Director Randy Tuchtenhagen.

Former commissioner Bob Berthelsen, who was on the board that hired Smith, appreciated working with him because they could disagree without holding grudges.

&uot;We’d come to the conclusion that we disagreed, and we’d let it go,&uot; Berthelsen said.

Smith’s strongest points are his overall knowledge of the county system and his contacts with other county and state officials, Berthelsen said.

&uot;He knew how to make contact with other county and state officials to pick their brains and see what they were doing,&uot; he said. &uot;He had a real knack for that.&uot;

&uot;It’s unfortunate he’s leaving, but I’m happy for Gene, and he has to do what he has to do,&uot; Mullenbach said.

&uot;I wish him luck,&uot; said Commissioner Dan Belshan. &uot;I hope it’s a good move for him.&uot;