After eight months of board division following the firing of its top leader, one of Minnesota’s largest watershed districts is about to pick a successor.
On Wednesday, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District’s board will interview four finalists in a national search for a top leader after abruptly firing district administrator Eric Evenson-Marden last year, spurring months of controversy and scrutiny.
Since the 4-3 vote last April to terminate Evenson-Marden after 15 years, the three managers who voted against the firing didn’t attend several meetings, mayors from nine cities requested watershed board meetings be videotaped to increase transparency, and the watershed’s citizens advisory committee approved a vote of “no confidence” in the board, asking Hennepin and Carver counties to intervene.
Now, the Minnetonka-based district is looking to move forward. In the coming months, it will have a new district administrator, new members of a citizens committee and possibly up to two new board managers on its seven-person board. In December, the board approved spending up to $10,000 for a mediator to resolve the internal conflict. And the board also started videotaping meetings.
“I think we’re set to continue to do great things,” said board manager Brian Shekleton, who led the search process for the new top spot.
The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District may be little known to the general public, but it has a large impact on the west metro area, managing everything from flooding to the spread of invasive species in a 181-square-mile area of Minneapolis and 26 western Twin Cities suburbs — from Minnehaha Falls and Lake Minnetonka to Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes.
Financially, it’s one of the state’s largest watershed districts. This year’s operating budget is $14 million. About $8.3 million is collected from property owners in Hennepin and Carver counties.
But with the watershed board divided, some west metro leaders are calling for new leadership and more oversight of a board that is not elected but appointed by the two counties’ boards.
“This is an entity that has a great deal of effect … on the environment,” retired state legislator Gen Olson of Minnetrista said this week after sending a note to west metro mayors saying the board needs new leadership. About videotaping meetings, she added: “I think it’s important for a group like this that has the power to tax and appears to be accountable to no one.”
She surveyed west metro mayors — most of whom were satisfied, she said, with Evenson-Marden’s leadership.
“[His firing] was the trigger that revealed [the board’s] polarization,” she said in an October interview. “To see this come into turmoil and you see it as a power struggle, over what? It’s not that everyone has to agree with everyone, but there has to be some civility.”
Since Evenson-Marden was fired, the district has been led by interim administrator Jeff Spartz, a former Hennepin County administrator and county commissioner. On Dec. 18, the board extended his six-month contract by another six weeks.
Now, on Wednesday night, the board will interview four finalists, one of whom will be the watershed’s fifth district administrator in its 48 years. The new leader will receive a salary between $83,585 and $125,377.
The finalists are Jay Riggs, district manager of the Washington Conservation District in Oakdale; Paul Nelson, program manager of environmental services with Scott County in Shakopee; Brentt Michalek, director of conservation of planning and zoning with Sauk County in Baraboo, Wis., and Lars Erdahl, special project assistant to the director and interim grants officer at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
“Any of the four could hit the ground running,” Shekleton said, adding that they all have strong management skills and science backgrounds.
The board could make a top pick as soon as Wednesday, though board manager Pam Blixt, one of the three who were against firing Evenson-Marden, said she had hoped the decision would have been made after the board was finalized in March, when two spots are up for reappointment.
“It’s a major decision for the board,” she said.
On Tuesday, Hennepin County posted the two board spots — Sherry Davis White’s and Jeff Casale’s, both of whom are seeking reappointment to the three-year terms. Applications are due Feb. 19.
The citizens’ group that advises the board will also get new members, with the board appointing them Jan. 15.
But even with the expected turnover in leadership, Blixt is unsure if it will address concerns she has about how the board is being run.
“Absolutely it’s divided,” she said. “ … It’s just very difficult being in a position where things aren’t going well. It’s been a very painful year. But I’m hopeful between mediation and possible changes on the board, it could potentially be looking up.”