What is the role of the Sauk River Watershed District? What is the role of its managers? How should managers be appointed?

Those questions and many more were addressed at a meeting of the Sauk River Watershed District in Melrose back in July, 2013 – well before the recent controversy over the district’s decision to clean out the watershed’s Judicial Ditch 2 sediment ponds and pass the costs onto the benefitting property owners.

Todd County Commissioner Randy Neumann provided the Osakis Review with a summary of that meeting, which was prepared by Chelle Benson, environmental services director for Stearns County.

All of the counties within the Sauk River Watershed District were represented: Douglas – Bev Bales, Jerry Johnson; Meeker – Mike Huberty; Pope – Paul Gerde; Stearns – Mark Bromenschenkel, DeWayne Mareck, Leigh Lenzmeier, Steve Notch, Jeff Mergen; and Todd – Barb Becker, Randy Neumann, Rod Erickson and David Kircher.

The purpose of the meeting was to assess and discuss the general knowledge of the various representative commissioners about the purpose of the watershed district, the structure of the watershed district and expectations for appointments to the watershed district.

The main take-aways from the meeting:

  • The appointment of managers makes a difference in how the watershed district functions. Each county should review their practices for appointment to determine if changes need to be made. Term limits should be considered.

  • There are numerous layers of government that affect water at various levels. No one entity has control over all water issues. There may be more than one agency or entity that regulates a water related project (local, special district, county, state, federal). No one wants regulatory overlap and each entity should define their role within a project to minimize confusion and create efficiencies.

  • County and watershed district staff will work together to streamline processes and eliminate overlap or exempt an entity if they have appropriate mechanisms in place.

    Communication is important and technology should be used (electronic sign-up for minutes, website review) to stay current on issues related to water. Consider having a county board liaison to the watershed district. What type of reporting is expected or desired by each board?

  • Meet with the counties within watershed to discuss issues on an annual basis.

Meeting details

The facilitator, Cindy Bigger, started the meeting with a basic but important question: What do you believe is the role of the watershed district? Responses included:

  • Protect water, water quality, damage control and habitat.

  • Improve water quality.

  • Advantage of doing multi-county work.

  • Coordinate cross jurisdictional water projects.

  • Establish policies.

  • Work with Soil Water Conservation Districts and other partners.

  • Regulatory responsibility.

  • Ditches.

  • Education.

  • Water quality monitoring, restoration.

What do you see the watershed doing in your county? Responses included:

  • Maintaining $800,000 sediment pond.

  • Ditches 15, 26 and 51.

  • Rain gardens.

  • Restoration grant.

  • Financing – taxes/money.

  • Sauk River Watershed supports Crooked Lake.

  • Governance of the watershed district.

  • Sewering of lakes.

In this part of the discussion there was some lack of understanding about the results of projects. How do you know if the project was successful? Should each project have clear and defined metrics?

The commissioners were then asked: What is the role of the SRWD Board of Managers?

  • Setting policy.

  • Set budget – fiduciary.

  • Hire administrator.

  • Approve and oversee a 10-year water plan.

The board’s role seemed clear to the commissioners based on their answers.

Bigger then asked about the manager selection process. How do you determine/decide how to appoint the “best” person to the board? When you appoint, is the appointment about the work priorities or your priorities? What are the ramifications for appointing and reappointing a board member that does not understand their role?

Each county described the current appointment process:

  • Stearns: Apply on website, may recruit, Application is reviewed and person interviewed by county board. Selection is based on: government, board and civic experience; board philosophy; must be familiar with processes.

  • Todd: Advertises when there’s an opening, seldom have more than one or two interested individuals. No interviews.

  • Meeker: No identified process of selection. Left to appropriate commissioner.

  • Douglas: Advertise the opening, appointed by county board. No selection process identified.

  • Pope: Advertise – currently just reappoint individual.

At this point, term limits were discussed – who has them and should counties impose them? If members are not fulfilling their duties how would the appointing body know? What are the expectations for managers? What criteria should be used in the selection process?

General concepts to consider during the appointment process were discussed by the facilitator and commissioners, such as the role of the appointment should be made clear to the appointee before the appointment occurs. Does the appointee understand what is expected of them? What type of training is available for appointees?

How should managers be appointed? Responses included:

  • Select individual who has no personal agenda.

  • Understands the makeup and role of board on which they will be serving.

  • Takes the time.

  • Comes to meetings prepared.

What are the ramifications of good appointments?

  • Works well with others, knows how to be on a board.

  • Work can move forward.

  • Variety of opinions.

  • Progress.

  • Understands their role.

  • Advantage for staff.

Bigger made the point that good appointments lead to high functioning boards and committees.

What are the ramifications of poor appointments?

  • How do commissioners know if their appointments are good or poor members? What does that mean? Could an ex-officio member know or be able to tell?

  • Idea: Could there be a county liaison that would represent county commissioners? Or a liaison from each county?

These questions were not answered directly but there was discussion around communication from appointments back to the board of commissioners or having liaisons from the board attend district meetings. Technology should be used to stay current with what is happening at the district through agendas and minutes.

The last major discussion point was centered on the current governance of the board. What is the make-up of the board and is it appropriate? Issues include:

  • Larger boards have/create more challenges to manage.

  • Current board is at nine members.

  • Five counties are represented in the SRWD.

  • Watershed is based on flow rather than population.

  • Can disbanding happen?

  • Regulatory authority – six layers? Is there redundancy?

  • Administrative turnover is a concern for some.

  • $2.5 million spent on Lake Osakis.

  • No reporting of results for money spent.

  • Communication is a great concern.

  • Where are the measurable? This is needed.

  • Were there divided votes by board of managers on any projects?

The board of managers was created as a part of the petition for establishment of the district in 1986. Representation is as follows: Stearns County has four representatives, Todd has two representatives, and Douglas, Meeker and Pope each has one representative.

Discussion from the Stearns Commissioners related to disproportionate representation since 64% of the land area of the district is in Stearns County and its residents pay the largest percentage of the funding to the district – 86% without majority representation.

It was noted by staff that work within a watershed district typically starts at the top of the watershed and projects work their way down stream, therefore, Stearns County receives the greatest downstream benefit from upstream projects.

The watershed district was formed and operates under Minnesota Statute 103D. Any changes to the make-up of the board of managers or petition to dissolve the district would have to follow the procedures outlined within that chapter.

Discussion of having Soil and Water Conservation Districts conduct the business of the watershed was brought forward. SWCDs do not operate in the same way as a watershed district; they do not have levy authority and their managers are elected. Since the district stops at the county line, any problems outside of the county would require a joint powers or other arrangement. SWCDs typically do not like to do regulatory work.

Can there be legislative change to the levy process for watershed districts, similar to a library board? So there is some review by each county board but district cannot be defunded.

Project communication was an area of concern. Measurable results should be tied to the project and its cost.

The facilitator wrapped up the discussion by asking the Commissioners what they would preserve, change, let go or create to make the SRWD strong, effective, relevant and sustainable?

Preserve

  • Best practices on water projects.

  • Best practices on educational function.

  • Coordination of multi-jurisdictional water projects.

  • Law and order.

  • Keep liaisons from county commissioners to board of managers.

  • Preserve nine-member board.

  • Administrator; if they leave, he/she leaves by choice not driven out.

Change

  • Legal firm (new firm needs to have similar “water” experience.

  • Have board of manager rep(s) report to the county board monthly.

  • Implement orientation policy for board of managers. Stress expectations.

  • Levy authority process – review and change how it is done (statute).

  • Board training and retreat (county commissioners).

  • Implement term limits in each county.

  • Board members need to understand their role.

  • Governance – votes, regulations.

  • How financial information is given to auditor/treasurer.

  • How and when to do public hearings.

Create

  • Term limits.

  • Each county having a liaison (ex-officio) to board of managers.

  • Create a better communication system for projects and other information – when starting a project, progress, completion, cost, people affected; use technology; share minutes and/or summaries.

  • Joint powers in place of current structure.

  • Post minutes, meeting schedules on county websites.

  • County commissioners should meet once per year regarding the watershed district.

Let go

  • Is delegating ditch authority to watershed wise?

  • City exemptions vs. county exemptions

  • Ditches.\u0009

  • Legal firm.