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COOK COUNTY CONNECTIONS: Passing the Baton

Oct 09, 2020 08:30AM ● By Editor

Submitted Photo By Interim Administrator/MIS Director Rena Rogers from Cook County MN - October 9, 2020

In 2013, the Cook County Board of Commissioners made the decision to operate as an administrative form of government as defined in State Statute 375A.06. Prior to this, county department heads were assigned to individual commissioners who acted in a supervisory role.

The previous approach resulted in inconsistencies in departmental oversight and the absence of a centralized view of operations necessary to understanding process improvements and interactions across county government. Most notably, it added operational work to the role of commissioners, who are elected to create a vision and establish policies for the county.

Administrative government relies on an administrator’s technical knowledge, experience in public administration training and management expertise, and dedication to public service to provide departmental oversight and a centralized view of operations. Commissioners can then operate as they should, providing vision and policy oversight that represents the constituents who elected them.

For the last year, I have had the privilege of serving Cook County in the interim administrator role. As we all know, 2020 has not been a typical year.  County operations needed to be adjusted to ensure the safety of county staff and the public. Priorities and budgets have been modified. Some areas, including Public Health and Emergency Management, have had significant changes in their roles and responsibilities., Many, if not all, of these changes will continue for the duration of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 response illustrates that the county made the right decision about the administrative form of government back in 2013. Here are a few examples.

1.     Operational Planning. As administrator, I worked with all departments to gather information and implement a plan for remote work. By doing this centrally, the county ensured that employees were treated consistently across the organization. Individual departments were not making decisions that could have sent mixed messages to the public and impacted public trust.

2.     Policy Development. Several policies needed put in place quickly to manage everything from closing county buildings to the public to revising personnel policies for remote workers. Many of the policies were not written by me (HR Director Pamela Dixon gets most of that credit) but, as administrator, I often was involved in identifying the need, getting input from the board, and then communicating with staff to ensure a successful implementation.

3.     Budget Management. When a budget is created, it represents our best guess about what will be needed in the future based on past experience. When the 2020 budget was set, no one had even heard of COVID-19. Some areas, i.e., information technology, saw significant increases in spending, while travel costs went down to nothing. There were opportunities to save as well. While the YMCA was closed, for example, we saw a significant reduction in utility costs. Some of those savings were used to make needed repairs without increasing the budget.

4.     Community Liaison. Participating in the Reopening Cook County group, along with business leaders, Public Health, the medical community, and the City of Grand Marais, provided an opportunity to understand competing interests and issues facing our community. This information helped inform policy decisions, including how to best spend the county’s CARES Act dollars to support businesses and individuals and not just supplement the county’s budget.

5.     Keeper of the Culture. The switch to remote work has and will continue to have a big impact on employees. Although we have great technology tools that allow us to connect with our coworkers, it is not the same as seeing someone in the hall and catching up on the weekend or stopping by an office to work on a problem. County employees, like most everyone else, are COVID-19 weary, and the isolation of working remotely can magnify that. Regular communication that provides updates, gives encouragement and shows gratitude for employee service helps maintain our common purpose.

Over the last year I’ve discovered that the interim administrator role is like being a runner in a relay race: I grabbed the baton and ran until I could hand off these duties to the next administrator. James Joerke will begin his run on Monday, October 12. James has a collaborative style of leadership that I believe will take Cook County government to a higher level of service. 

As the administrator, James will have a long-term role with the board and staff, which will help in developing and implementing a strategic plan. Additionally, his role as community liaison is critical for tackling issues around economic development and housing and for becoming a trusted partner to all groups and interests.

Please join me in welcoming James to our community. 

Be well.

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service

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