Residents’ petition puts attempt to appoint—not elect—county recorder on ballot

The Redwood County Board of Commissioners recently unilaterally decided to convert the county recorder’s office into an appointed, rather than elective position, chosen by voters every four years. The move followed the retirement of the longtime recorder and appointment of an interim replacement.

The board’s main reason? To make sure there’s a qualified individual in the office of the recorder, whose primary duties include maintaining records of all real estate transactions, births and deaths, marriages and other vital statistics.

“Fifty-seven of 87 counties have gone from elected to appointed,” said Redwood County Commissioner Dave Forkrud at the February 6 board meeting. “The reason behind that is they know they’re hiring, they’re appointing, a qualified person.”

The abrupt proposal rubbed some residents of the southwestern Minnesota county the wrong way. Until now, citizens have always been the ones to hire or fire the recorder at the ballot box. Several opponents showed up at the decisive meeting in a last ditch attempt to dissuade the commissioners.

“The appointment of office holders by those within the government encourages bureaucratic cronyism,” Tammy Houle told the board.

“This is a slippery slope. You start with one, it’s gonna be the county auditor next,” Mary Gayle Bratsch said. “You’re going to want to hire, instead of having an elected sheriff, and that puts you guys as the bosses, instead of us the voters.”

It was to no avail, as the board unanimously approved the resolution. But just when it appeared to be a done deal, an obscure provision in the 2019 legislation allowing counties to appoint the recorder and auditor/treasurer, without consulting constituents, came into play.

The statute allows opponents to force a referendum to reverse the board’s decision if they garner support from 10 percent of registered voters within 30 days. That gave Redwood County residents a March 4 deadline to collect more than 900 signatures. Two former sheriffs and two former county recorders joined the “activists” circulating the petition countywide.

“It takes the vote away from the people, it takes their voice away,” said Tiffany Lesmeister, one of the petition drive organizers. “That’s the main response  from people. People  like to have a voice, a say, in who their elected people are and who’s working for them in the county.”

It appears to be the first time Minnesotans have invoked the 2019 provision to give them a voice in whether to eliminate an elective office on the chopping block. On March 4 the group submitted nearly 1,700 signatures, hundreds more than required. The remarkable show of support in a short time from all over the county suggests residents feel strongly about sending a message over the value of their vote.