DETROIT LAKES — The Becker County Sheriff’s Office is deeply concerned about the loss of technical support for officers on patrol and in the office, and for correctional officers at the jail, following the recent resignation of two-thirds of the Information Technology team at Becker County.
The exodus of Becker County employees is largely due to the management style of new Becker County Administrator Pat Oman, according to interviews with a number of past and present county employees. Oman became Becker County administrator on Dec. 14, a little over six months ago.
For his part, Oman says the talk of an exodus is overblown, and that the county is simply losing people to retirement or better career opportunities elsewhere. “They are leaving for good reasons,” he said in an interview. “We wish them well.”
“Our concern is for public safety,” Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander said in an interview. “If we’re not running on all cylinders, we’re feeling it, one way or the other.”
Those four seasoned IT staffers kept the county running on all cylinders, according to Glander and Chief Deputy Shane Richard, who is involved with a lot of the technical issues with the sheriff’s office.
They “were very valuable at helping us when we had issues here,” Glander said. Law enforcement relies a lot on technology, with the computer systems at the jail, the dispatch center, squad car computers, law enforcement radio systems, and technology linking the sheriff’s office with state law enforcement, other counties and cities, and the County Attorney’s Office, among many other examples, he said.
Technical problems, big and small, come up often in any work environment, including law enforcement, and the county IT staff helps out on a daily basis, Richard said. The small stuff is one thing, but “we have critical systems,” he added. “When we have a failure, we need someone with the knowledge of our systems here, someone who can basically spring into action and fix the issues.”
The situation is all the more frustrating for the sheriff’s office because one of those seasoned IT trouble-shooters wanted to stay after initially resigning, but was not allowed to.
The six-person county IT team includes a GPS specialist and a software developer, both of whom remain, but who work in a separate area and generally stay within their areas of expertise.
The four experienced trouble-shooters have left. Brent Hanson, the network guru, left in February and IT staffer Ron Sprafka eventually followed suit. Supervisor Stacie White also resigned and is leaving early next month.
That left IT staffer Joni Pace, who was with the county IT team for 11 years, and was especially committed to IT issues involving the sheriff’s office (her great-grandfather served as county sheriff).
She declined to be interviewed for this story, but Sprafka said that Pace had felt overwhelmed at being alone in the office when she put in her resignation.
She soon thought better of it and tried to rescind her resignation, but Oman refused to allow her to do so. “Your request to rescind your job resignation is denied,” Oman wrote to her. “Your last day with the county will be what you originally requested in your resignation letter, which was June 29th.”
She’s welcome to reapply, along with anyone else interested in the job, Oman said in an interview.
That lost opportunity was difficult for the sheriff’s office to swallow. “We (the county) have hired two new IT people, but they’re brand new,” Richard said. “It’s not their fault. There’s no way you can just switch your entire IT department and just expect things to function.”
In her resignation letter, Pace had high praise for White, the IT director.
“To Stacie: I have never had a harder working or more ethical boss,” Pace wrote. “We have gotten so much accomplished in the last six years and you have continually pushed and encouraged us to do more. You have led by example and set a strong work ethic and expectation for all of us, and I have been so proud of the team that we had and the work that we accomplished. It often is not understood how much goes on behind the scenes in IT – we manage 60 servers, 8 locations, 350 users, etc. … There is a deep infrastructure that is constantly being updated and improved, along with the daily support and forward thinking projects. Also, Stacie, thank you for creating an amazing team atmosphere. While none of us ever did anything together outside of work, inside of work we were a cohesive team and a family that cared greatly about doing a good job and serving the people of the county.”
IT staffer Ron Sprafka said the IT department had a tough couple of years, especially during the major disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had pulled some miracles off during the course of this,” he said. But instead of appreciation, the IT staff felt like it was getting flak “for not doing more,” he said.
“I loved my job and the people I worked with, especially my immediate IT team,” he said.
His leaving, he said, “was the culmination of outright abuse and lack of respect by some of the (county) board members for years,” he said.
It didn’t help when Brent Hanson left the county IT team in February. “A network administrator is really hard to replace,” Sprafka said. And county administration was making it harder, not easier to find a solution by taking over the hiring process and not letting the IT people be involved, even in writing interview questions for applicants, he said.
At that point, Sprafka allowed himself to be recruited by a headhunting firm, and now works for a Fargo company.
Veterans Services resignations
The two-person Veterans Service Office, including award-winning Veterans Service Officer Lauri Brooke, is also leaving. She has been serving the veterans of Becker County since 2006.
Brooke, an Army veteran, put it diplomatically: “I have a military background, and I believe you should follow the direction of leadership, but I was not comfortable with the direction that was being put in front of me,” she said in an interview. “A lot of good people who feel like they haven’t been listened to are now out the door, and a lot of good people are staying who hope the environment gets better for them.”
Brooke, 61, is passionate about helping veterans, and said she would have liked to work another four years for Becker County, but couldn’t do it in the current environment. She will be done in early July, unless, she said, county administration forces her out sooner, as it did with her longtime office manager Mary Lou Schmit and others.
Brooke, at least, has landed on her feet, and taken a job with the Disabled American Veterans organization in the Twin Cities, with the ability to work from home.
Oman put a positive spin on the loss, saying that now the county will be able to have a veteran’s service officer and a part-time veterans service officer, both qualified to help veterans. “When one window closes, another one opens,” he said.
Board goes into crisis management mode
The County Board on Tuesday cobbled together an emergency plan for the Information Technology Department, but not without controversy.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “What we’ve had lately is difficult to swallow. … Cyber security is vital. I think we have a real difficult road in front of us, to say the least. We need to get a written policy to improve employee retention, and improve employee relations — we need a policy to not let things escalate the way they can. We have to retain good employees. We have to show them the worth we feel these employees have.”
To provide IT support, commissioners eventually agreed to contract for twice-a-week on-site help and 24-7 remote help with Morris (Minn.) Electronics, a well-regarded tech firm that has been providing back-up support to the Becker County IT team for years.
“This is an absolute necessity,” Nelson said, “but I want the current chair (Commissioner Larry Knutson), not the administrator, to sign the contract … I trust you, Larry.”
It was agreed that both the chair and the administrator would sign the contract, providing oversight over any future changes.
Even so, commissioners at first shot down the proposed contract over concerns about potential costs and future obligations. “The contract lacks details,” Grimsley said. “I don’t understand who will come here and the rates of pay.”
Oman said he was comfortable moving ahead without the contract. “We don’t need a contract with them — we can do what we’ve done the last 10 years,” he told commissioners.
But later in the meeting, Nelson said he couldn’t just let it go, and brought it back.
“We are in critical need right now,” he told the board at one point. “You don’t know how critical it is … we need them (Morris Electronics) right now in this transition time — we have to get them on board.”
Commissioners reconsidered and unanimously approved the contract.
Things are rocky in Becker County, and it may end up costing taxpayers, said Roger Meunier, business agent for Teamsters Local 320. There are currently three union grievances going to arbitration, and he expects each one to cost the county an average of $10,000 to $15,000 when resolved.
“Becker County is not a very good place for employees right now,” he said in an interview, adding, “Fifty-plus employees have left since Jan. 1 this year. A lot of them are just sick of leadership’s inability to lead.”
Oman said exit interviews show that the majority of employees leaving are not unhappy with the county, but rather are looking to improve their careers or retiring.
The county’s hiring process has been successful, he says, and the current total employee count is 320, with 24 open positions.