By Ivan Raconteur
Herald Journal Editor
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN A new man stepped into the top administrative job in Wright County Tuesday the first time this has happened in more than three decades.
The board formally appointed Lee Kelly to the county coordinator position during Tuesday’s meeting. Kelly has served as interim coordinator since June, when former County Coordinator Dick Norman retired after 30 years of service to the county.
Kelly has been employed by Wright County since January 2009, when he was hired as special projects administrator, replacing Pat Melvin, who left to accept the administrator position in McLeod County.
“I don’t know if I chose it, or it chose me,” Kelly said of his decision to work in the public sector.
He explained many members of his family have been involved in different levels of local government, so he has been exposed to it his whole life.
“My mother served on the school board and was involved in soil and water stuff,” Kelly said. “My dad was a township clerk for years, and I think he took over from his dad. My step-dad is a county commissioner in another county, and my step-brother is a county engineer. It’s funny we all sit around at Christmas and talk county shop.”
Kelly enjoys working for the county because there is always something different and challenging to do.
“That keeps it fresh and new, always,” he said.
Prior to being hired by Wright County, Kelly worked for 3M in St. Paul in the talent development and organizational effectiveness department. He was responsible for doing leadership evaluations and proctoring organizational surveys.
Before that, Kelly worked as an intern for 15 months in the administration and human resources departments in Stearns County.
“That’s kind of how I ended up with Wright County,” Kelly said. “A lot of the same projects I had worked on there (in Stearns County) were the same things the county was looking to do here.”
Kelly also worked for Renville County in its hospital system.
“They had an interesting scenario there where a local clinic was merging with the county hospital, so I got involved with helping to write some of their policies and job descriptions,” Kelly said. “It was an interesting challenge, taking a public sector (entity) and combining it with private.”
Kelly attended college at St. Cloud State University, where he earned a master’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology, which he described as “the psychology equivalent of an MBA.”
Much of his degree focused on organizational analysis, so Kelly supplemented this with management and human resources courses to try to round it out. He said a lot of the market for that degree is in the Twin Cities, and he would rather live in the country.
Kelly grew up on a farm south of Olivia, “ the corn capital,” about half an hour south of Willmar. In the mid-1990s, his family moved to Stearns County, outside St. Cloud.
What does a county coordinator do?
“I am kind of the intermediary between the board and the department heads,” Kelly explained. “I carry out county board direction. In both administration and human resources, we have many masters. We are responsible to the board, responsible to the department heads, and, most importantly, responsible to the public.”
As county coordinator, Kelly also processes information requests and facilitates meeting agendas, which must be submitted by Thursday at 3 p.m. for the following Tuesday board meeting.
There is often information for Kelly or his staff to look up. They research history, and provide information to the board.
The coordinator helps the board make informed decisions.
“A big part of our role is doing the legwork for them,” Kelly said.
His duties also include identifying any possible liabilities and mitigating risks. “The attorney’s office has been very helpful over the years in that area,” he noted.
Although his role is to facilitate the vision of the county board, Kelly also has goals of his own for his new position.
“As a county, we’re moving more to reliance on technology and streamlining processes through technology,” he said. This involves transparency and providing information to the public. “In the future, perhaps a lot of the reasons they (county residents) come to the courthouse, they could do from the comfort of their homes,” he added.
“It’s really looking at the way we do business, and have in the past, and trying to find new and effective ways to get that done,” Kelly said. “It’s all about providing the best service you can for the lowest dollar, as efficiently as you can. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes. We want to provide the best value. I envision us becoming more technologically advanced to serve the public better in the future.”
Kelly’s goals also include working with other county employees.
“I’ve been trying to foster more collaboration and teamwork,” he said. “We have a great group of department heads who are pulling in the same direction some really bright people.”
Kelly said he enjoys analysis and research, and hopes to be able to apply that skill set at Wright County.
Rather than accepting the way things have been done in the past, Kelly will ask, “Is that the best way to do it, or is there another solution, or a way we can we streamline the process?”
A county in transition
This year has been a period of transition for the county, Kelly said, noting January began with four new board members. He also referenced the recent retirements of several long-time department heads, including Norman, Tom Salkowski (planning and zoning administrator), Don Mleziva (human services director), and Wayne Fingalson (county engineer).
“There’s been a lot of moving and shaking,” Kelly laughed.
He complimented the new commissioners.
“They’ve been good. They have a lot of ideas. They’ve been very active in pursing things they think they should be pursuing. Finding the possibilities, exploring them, and trying to facilitate the board’s vision has been a big challenge for me thus far,” Kelly said. “They’re very engaged. They’re putting in a lot of hours. They are involved, and they have done a lot of homework.”
Life outside the office
Kelly and his wife, Sarah, were married in 2009. They have two daughters, both with December birthdays. Teagan will turn 3 next month, and Annika will turn 1. They reside near St. Cloud.
Kelly said balancing work and family has been a challenge with all the hours he has worked during the past six months, while he has been interim coordinator, as well has handling the duties of special projects administrator.
“I have a very understanding wife,” he said.
Music and more
Despite his busy schedule, Kelly has interests beyond work and family life.
Kelly said he has always been involved in music.
“I play guitar and trumpet. I can sort of play bass, pedal steel, and mandolin. I’ve played in jazz bands, blues bands, classic rock, country, old country, classical. I played in wind ensembles in college. I’ve always been involved in music a little bit of everything. There’s not a genre I haven’t played at some point in my life,” he commented.
Kelly said he likes to work on old cars as much as he can, but acknowledged that this hobby has fallen by the wayside over the past year or so. He hopes to get back to it when his daughters are a little older.
It has been a busy summer for Kelly.
“I hope things will settle down in our lives a bit now,” he said with a smile.