Victoria Reinhardt has served on the Ramsey County Board for 20 years. During every campaign season, she’s been asked the same question over and over.
“When I went to the doors in ’96 when I was running, the most commonly asked question was: ‘What does a county commissioner do?’ ” Reinhardt said. “In 2016, the most commonly asked question is, ‘What does a county commissioner do?’ ”
Falling between city councils and the Legislature, nonpartisan county boards are a powerful layer of local government — managing multimillion dollar budgets, levying taxes and making decisions about social services, transportation, land use and public safety — but their work is often invisible to the communities they serve.
That lack of awareness shows up at the polls. In even-year general elections between 2000 and 2014, fewer than half the people who cast ballots in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area voted in county board elections, according to a Star Tribune analysis of Minnesota voting data. By comparison, more than 90 percent of voters cast ballots for state representatives in that period.
“It’s one of the most important units of government, but it’s one of the least understood,” said Craig Waldron, a lecturer in public administration at Hamline University.
In Minnesota, counties are responsible for carrying out state mandates. That bond between counties and the state can make it difficult to tell who is responsible for what, said Julie Ring, executive director at the Association of Minnesota Counties.
“We may have perpetuated some of the problem by not always branding things that we do as a county thing,” she said.
Not all of the services that counties provide apply to every resident.
In Olmsted County, the bulk of the annual budget goes to administering social services, said Board Chair Stephanie Podulke. For residents who don’t use those programs, that may not mean much.
“People don’t care about much until it is relevant to them,” Podulke said.
Where people live within a county also makes a difference.
Rural residents tend to interact more with county government than do city dwellers, Ring said. As a result, city residents may not realize that county decisions affect them. Some don’t realize that a street in their neighborhood is a county road, or that their favorite hiking trail is overseen by the county parks department.
“I’ve actually had friends running for the county board and going door-to-door and having the city residents say, ‘Well, I like you and I’d love to vote for you but I live in the city, not the county,’ ” said Waldron, of Hamline University.
Bridging the gap
Holly Jenkins got involved in county government after learning about a trail-paving project at Lebanon Hills Regional Park near her home.
Before that, Jenkins said, she didn’t know that the county was responsible for regional parks. She ended up running for the Dakota County Board this fall on a platform of government transparency.
“When people feel strongly about an issue, we do tend to hear from them,” said Dakota County Manager Matt Smith. “In a lot of ways, no news is kind of good news, because if people are satisfied, then we just continue to do what we’re doing.”
Still, counties are trying to figure out how to connect with residents before there’s a problem.
Dakota County provides taxation notices electronically, and nearly 5,000 people have signed up this year. Blue Earth County offers a seven-week course for community members to learn how the county works.
The National Association of Counties provides educational materials on its website under the heading, “Why Counties Matter.”
And on a basic level, commissioners try to be available to their constituents, said Reinhardt of Ramsey County — even if they don’t get as many calls as other elected officials.
“I don’t know of any county commissioner that doesn’t value that phone call, that e-mail,” she said. “Even if it’s negative.”