By Jennifer Kotila
MEEKER COUNTY, MN Before filing for the office of Meeker County Commissioner for district 3 in 1996, Amy Wilde did not realize she was about to make history as the first woman to serve on the board of commissioners.
“I didn’t realize there had never been a woman as commissioner when I filed. I didn’t file intending to make history, but I guess I did,” Wilde said.
Being elected as the first female commissioner won her Woman of the Year for Meeker County in 1998.
Breaking the glass ceiling can be a challenging task for women, but Wilde said, “I don’t feel the Meeker County Board treated me any differently than any other commissioner.”
Wilde said having a woman serve on the Meeker County Board of Commissioners brought another set of eyes and ears to the table.
“Probably the greatest advantage of being female (and serving on the county board) has been in regards to personnel helping (the board) to realize that flexible hours and other benefits are more important to women than the amount of pay,” Wilde said, noting that women still care about pay, but flexible hours and benefits are often just as important.
Although being elected the first woman commissioner in Meeker County is a great accomplishment in itself, Wilde said, “I think my legacy [as a commissioner] will be in the area of innovations in health and human services.”
Wilde said she decided to run for county commissioner because she felt the Dassel area was not getting as much attention as it should at the county level.
At the time, both the fire and police department were talking about poor radio communication in the area, county road improvements had not been done for some time, and Wilde said she felt the Dassel business community needed a little attention.
County-wide, Wilde said she wanted to see small businesses have access to affordable healthcare and she wanted to see better communication between schools and county social services in regards to children with special needs.
Throughout her 14-year tenure as county commissioner, Wilde served on several boards, many of which focused on the areas she saw needed improvement.
“I have chosen, as a commissioner, to focus my interests on traditionally female interests, such as health and human services and education,” Wilde said. “Being a former newspaper reporter and an employee of the special education office in Cokato, it is what I knew and understood, so naturally, I would gravitate towards it.”
“Amy really dug in and researched everything she worked on,” said fellow commissioner Jim Swenson.
Wilde has served as chair of the Meeker County Board of Commissioners twice, is chair of the Pioneerland Regional Library System board, serves on the Meeker County Council on Aging, serves on the Meeker Housing and Redevelopment Authority board, has served on and chaired the state health and human services policy committee, served and twice chaired Meeker-McLeod-Sibley Community Health, served on and chaired, for two years, the National Association of Counties Medicaid Subcommittee.
Last year, Wilde won the Minnesota Social Service Association’s Morris Hursh award, which recognizes a Minnesotan who has made a positive impact on the delivery of services at the local, state, and federal level.
“Amy has the rare gift of accomplished writing, grasps the complexities of human services, and has a non-partisan way of speaking with clients, constituents, and government officials at the local, state, and federal levels,” said Clark Gustafson, Meeker County social service director.
“Wilde has been a real asset to Meeker County. She has done so much for healthcare. She has served on many boards national, as well as local. We are losing one good commissioner,” said Wally Strand, fellow county commissioner.
Being a leader in healthcare reform for Meeker County
During Wilde’s time as a Meeker County Commissioner, “Meeker County went from being a foot-dragging follower to a progressive leader in more efficient health and human service delivery,” she said.
One of the most important initiatives for the county is better-managed healthcare assistance that is locally controlled, rather than being controlled by the metro, Wilde said.
“Creating PrimeWest Health has brought better medical reimbursement to local healthcare providers,” Wilde said.
PrimeWest Health is a county-based purchasing (CBP) health plan operated and governed by 13 rural Minnesota counties. It provides health coverage to county residents who qualify for Minnesota Health Care Programs (MHCP).
It works closely with each county’s Social/Human/Family Services departments to enroll members in one of several state or federally funded health programs.
PrimeWest Health has allowed Meeker County to control everything from enrollment decisions for patients to reimbursements decisions for healthcare providers, following state rules, Wilde said.
Wilde even went to Washington, DC and met with President Barack Obama’s advisor, Michael Blake, about PrimeWest Health being a model that could be followed on the national level, according to Gustafson.
This year, PrimeWest is rolling out a new plan to provide affordable healthcare to small businesses with 50 or fewer employees, called Values Health, Wilde said.
Another program Wilde has been very involved in is a four-county mental healthcare initiative which enables schools, social services, healthcare providers, and corrections to work together to provide services for families, Wilde said.
Each of the healthcare initiatives Wilde worked on were collaborations with other counties.
“I have learned as a commissioner that none of us is as smart as all of us. We’ve created more efficiency by working cooperatively with neighboring counties than by trying to do everything on a stand-alone basis,” Wilde said.
She added, “Doing more, cooperatively, with neighboring counties, with our schools, and with cities within our counties, we share administrative services, staff, grants sometimes three counties working together can get a grant where one county cannot.”
Improvements for county district under Wilde’s leadership
Wilde was able to accomplish many of the goals she intended to accomplish when she ran for commissioner.
“Amy’s work ethic stands out; she put a lot of effort into being a county commissioner,” Meeker County Administrator Paul Virnig said.
A number of county roads were improved in the eastern part of Meeker County, Wilde said.
Spring Lake Park, Greenleaf Recreation Area, and other area county parks have also been improved.
With help from the Friends of the Dassel Library, Saturday hours were restored at the Dassel Public Library and new computers were installed, according to Wilde.
Public service communications in the eastern part of the county were upgraded using state and federal grants.
Although she has never served on the board of the Meeker County Economic Development Authority (Meeker EDA), the Meeker County Board of Commissioners did have to approve the formation of the Meeker EDA.
She said it made sense for there to be a county-wide EDA, rather than each town having an individual one.
The board of commissioners also has to approve any recommendation brought forth by Meeker EDA.
Wilde pointed out that many projects were approved to keep small manufacturers in the county, or help them expand in the county.
“In order for a business to receive help from the EDA, it must pay a living wage and provide benefits to its employees,” Wilde said.
While not all the projects done by the EDA have been successful, Wilde points out the EDA has filled and found new uses for many old buildings in the county and in her district.
Another improvement in Meeker County was adoption of a county shoreline ordinance, which Meeker County was one of the first counties in southern Minnesota to adopt, according to Wilde.
It has consistently assisted several lake associations with clean water projects, weed control, and emergency warning sirens, Wilde said.
Plans for the future
Before moving into the next phase of her life, Wilde plans to take a few weeks to enjoy semi-retirement, she said.
Following that, Wilde plans to be involved in other capacities within the areas she has created leadership and expertise in as a county commissioner, she said, although she is unsure what direction that may take.
Wilde plans to remain on the Meeker HRA board, and continue to volunteer for the Meeker County Council on Aging, she said.
She also plans to help out at her and her husband, Bob’s small business, Wilde Studios a little more, as well as spending more time with her family, Wilde said.
Tim Benoit has been elected as Meeker County district 3 commissioner and will take office at the next Meeker County Board of Commissioners meeting.