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Literature in a Hurry: Citizens deserve better from their elected officials

Stevens County Auditor/Treasurer Neil Wiese has, in the past, characterized himself as a champion of the taxpayers of Stevens County. But his actions since submitting a letter of resignation to the Stevens County Board of Commissioners last week tell a different story.

There are two aspects of Wiese’s resignation that raise questions for me. The first is his decision to take two weeks of vacation at the end of his employment.

It’s not usual for employees to try and use outstanding vacation time after giving notice at a job. Under many employment contracts, those days disappear if they are unused or have unpleasant tax implications when simply paid out.

But elected officials in Stevens County – the auditor/treasurer, attorney, recorder and sheriff – don’t accrue vacation time or sick leave. According to Minnesota State Statute, this is true for all county elected officials.

With this in mind, I can see no pressing reason for Wiese to take two weeks of vacation, effectively giving Stevens County only one week of notice that he was resigning.

Asking the taxpayers of the county to pay for two weeks of work that he won’t complete is at best, questionable. At worst, it’s unethical, and certainly not the action of a person who was elected to serve the people of the community as a fiscal steward.

The second issue is the timing of Wiese’s resignation. His final day of work is just days before Minnesota’s primary election on Aug. 12 – one of the major responsibilities of the auditor/treasurer’s office. The auditor/treasurer’s office, which Wiese has frequently argued is understaffed, will now be even more short-handed going into the election season.

While I have no doubt that the staff that remain in the office will oversee a smooth primary election, if Wiese remained as auditor/treasurer for just a few more days he could have put the county in a better position to appoint someone to fill the remaining five months of his term.

Bowing out of a job you were elected to do just days before one of the most important functions of that job is a betrayal of the trust the voters put in you in the first place.

Wiese seems to believe that his decision to resign will serve as some kind of wake up call to members of the board of commissioners. While it’s true that Wiese and some county commissioners have butted heads, their conflict has not appeared to me – as an observer at nearly every county board meeting for the last three years – as much more than posturing.

As a citizen of Stevens County, I’m dismayed that an elected official would abandon his statutory responsibilities in a misguided attempt to teach other elected officials a lesson.

It is also true that Wiese has seen his workload increase over the last month, following the resignation of the county coordinator. But the basics of those jobs, overseeing the budget and clerking for the board, are functions that his office is obligated, by state law, to complete.

Members of the board have also been clear that they plan to hire a new coordinator or administrator. Having Wiese take on these additional responsibilities has always been a temporary measure.

Given those concerns about how Wiese has behaved in his resignation, what concerns me the most is Wiese’s cavalier attitude about the election in November. Wiese’s name is the only name on the ballot for auditor/treasurer, a fact he believes makes it “extremely unlikely” that he will lose – despite quitting the very job he is running for just a few months earlier.

By not stating unequivocally that he will not return to the position of auditor/treasurer, even if elected, Wiese is using his unique privilege of being an elected official running in an election unopposed to take a five month vacation.

The only reason Wiese has the option to quit his elected position with so little grace and while demanding payment for work he won’t be doing is because he believes that he can take the job back on a whim. He expects the voters of Stevens County – the people ultimately tasked with deciding whether he should hold this office – to re-elect him despite his questionable behavior.

This is a benefit only people who have an elected office can possibly expect. But it is exactly the benefit that public-minded individuals would never use to their own advantage.

I hope a qualified candidate will launch a write-in campaign for auditor/treasurer. I also hope that a future auditor/treasurer and the board of commissioners will have a serious discussion about whether this position should be appointed rather than elected. Other counties have made this switch to ensure that the position is held by someone qualified to oversee the fiscal health of the county. It’s worth consideration here too.

Wiese may have, in the past, been a strong advocate for the people of Stevens County, but his excuses for resigning and behavior while doing so raise serious questions. We as citizens deserve better from our elected officials.