Cass County chooses new county administrator

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FARGO – Cass County will soon have a new county administrator.

Robert Wilson, the assistant commission administrative officer for South Dakota’s Minnehaha County, will take over the spot now held by interim County Administrator Darrell Vanyo.

The announcement was made Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 14, after Wilson announced his resignation before the Minnehaha County Commission in Sioux Falls earlier in the day, Cass County Commission Chairman Chad Peterson said.

Cass commissioners voted 3-1 for Wilson on Tuesday, Feb. 7, Peterson said.

Peterson said Vern Bennett cast the lone no vote. Commissioner Rick Steen left the meeting prior to the vote to catch a flight.

The commission then directed the Sheriff’s Office to perform a full background check on Wilson. Once that was done, a county human resources administrator and Vanyo offered Wilson the job, Peterson said.

However, the commission may have taken its vote improperly under the state’s open meetings law. County officials gave public notice that commissioners were interviewing candidates Monday, Feb. 6, and Tuesday, Feb. 7, but it didn’t mention that the commissioners would take official action on their choice.

“It sort of happened organically,” Peterson said. “The logic behind it was, ‘Are we going to delay… another week before we make an offer? Well, that doesn’t make any sense. We have the entire team here … why wouldn’t we vote?’ We publicly noticed the meeting. It’s not like we’re hiding anything from anybody, so that’s why we voted the way we did. To expedite things, I guess.”

Bennett wanted to have another meeting to allow a background check to take place, but Peterson said it didn’t appear Wilson would fail a check and the county had been without an administrator for months.

“If this is our guy with no objection, why are we going to wait another week?” Peterson asked. “In my mind, I didn’t feel compelled to stall the process another week just to have a symbolic meeting.”

Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said the board's meeting notice doesn't seem sufficient, because it mentioned interviews with administrator applicants but not a vote on which candidate the commission wanted to hire.

"The intent of the notice is to let people know what's going on," McDonald said.

The Forum on Tuesday, Feb. 14, requested audio recordings of the commission meetings on Feb. 6 and 7, but was informed by Commission Assistant Heather Worden that no recordings were made. Minutes of the meetings are being compiled, but are not yet available, she said in an email.

“The best part of the County Commission is that we operate … with as much of an open door policy as possible,” Peterson said. “If the implication is someone is saying we intended to deceive, I guess I would take umbrage with that.”

Wilson starts March 13, Worden said.

Wilson’s formal appointment and approval of his salary –expected to be about $109,0000 – will be on the agenda for the Tuesday, Feb. 21, commission meeting, Peterson said.

“I think from my perspective, he has a great public relations background” as a former reporter, Peterson said. “He presents himself very, very well.”

Peterson said the commission will also discuss readjusting the responsibilities of the county administrator to have that person be responsible for all of the county’s non-elected department heads.

Wilson said Tuesday that he looks forward to starting his new job.

“I am thrilled and excited at this opportunity,” he said. “I am truly humbled by the trust of the commission. I’m just looking to be of service … in any way that I can.”

Wilson said he was drawn to the Cass County position by its similarities to Minnehaha County, as well as the challenge of the Red River diversion project.

“It sounds like a really, really big project. I’m excited about jumping into that,” he said.

He and his wife also visited the Fargo-Moorhead area this last weekend.

“Just had a very, very positive feeling about the organization and the community and the overall feeling and expectation,” Wilson said.

Wilson has worked for Minnehaha County for seven years. Before that, he was a general assignment reporter for KSFY-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Wilson has a bachelor of science degree from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

In Minnehaha County, he helped run the day-to-day administration of 520 employees and an annual budget of about $80 million.

Cass County began searching for a new county administrator after commissioners voted to fire former administrator Keith Berndt on Dec. 1.

Berndt was accused of being involved in a disturbance that caused a United Airlines flight attendant to ask him to leave a plane in Chicago in August.

Wilson was one of four finalists for the post, along with Cass County Engineer Jason Benson, former Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner and Curtis Cannon, the interim assistant city manager and special projects manager for Rosemead, Calif.