Retiring county coordinator,
'honored and humbled' to have served
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 5:59 AM
Two decades. "It went really fast," she explained. She sits in the county boardroom. In front of her is the desk she sat at with the board of commissioners during many meetings. The name plates have now changed and so have the times.
Karen Brown will be stepping down from the coordinator position officially on Jan. 1, 2014. She has held the position for 20 years and is currently helping new coordinator Bobbie Jo Vickerman transition into the position to cover her many responsibilities.
Karen Brown will no longer be employed by Fillmore County once 2013 ends. The longtime county coordinator and board clerk will have her last day on Dec. 31.
"I was always interested in politics," Brown remarked, recalling memories from junior high when her class would work on current event stories. One in particular, an article she wrote titled "Johnson in Wonderland," was even recommended for local publication by her teacher in Lewiston.
Brown went on to attend a community college in Rochester and obtain further education from Luther. Her first career saw her working at a federal jobs program in Iowa. There she acted as an administrator for an economic development commission. There she gained much experience with state and federal programs, particularly in welfare reform.
When the coordinator position in Fillmore County, her home county, opened up, her sister-in-law suggested Brown try for it. "The board members took a chance on me. I had no county experience," she said.
Brown laughs lightly when reminded of her first day on April 19, 1993. The county hadn't had a coordinator for 14 months. When Brown started, she didn't even have her own office, just a desk in the auditor's department. After a week, she moved into a storage room and shared support staff with the veterans' service officer.
Getting settled in didn't take long, but the learning curve didn't make it easy. Brown said she tried to get up to speed on personnel policies as quickly as she could, but it still took a couple years for her to feel comfortable with everything.
Brown took over the board clerk role in 1995. To her, that was one of several milestone moments in her career. Over the years, the coordinator position would continue to evolve. Brown would lead putting together the annual budget, direct human resources and economic development, help create the county's legislative platform, direct information systems and other responsibilities. Her work evolved as the ways in which the county did things changed. Technology drove much of that transformation.
"When I started, the typewriter was state of the art," she shared. The county had some computers then, but nothing like they have now. Brown said the volume of information has changed the most during her time with the county because of all the servers and computers that can hold and access it all. Brown laughed as she recalled former Commissioner Robert Thompson saying, "I think we'll go back to the addressograph!" The Information Systems Department was created during Brown's time.
Brown has also seen several large changes in county infrastructure. The courthouse received its major remodel and expansion in 2005. The Fillmore County Office Building was completed in 2000. The Fillmore County Highway building was also remodeled during the past year.
She has also dealt with many people as they have come and gone from the county workplace. There are only a handful of department heads left who were around when Brown started working. The changes in personnel, she explained, taught her lessons in adaptation. She has served with 13 different county commissioners. Each change was an opportunity, in her mind, to take a fresh look at what she was doing and what she could be doing better or differently.
She expressed her gratitude for past and present board members who she felt gave her ample opportunities to be actively involved and influential.
Her position is a responsibility she has taken seriously. Brown maintained an open door policy in order to be more responsive to fellow employees, citizens and board members. "I try to help people with getting information. It takes time to do that sometimes, but it's rewarding when you can be responsive," she said.
Engaging with the public has become an ever more important task for local governments. Brown said the public knows the county has information and they expect to be able to obtain that information quickly.
Brown feels the county already does a good job making processes as effective as possible, but sees a real need to educate others about the full reach of local government in a person's life. Brown said she tried to be an advocate for small government every day of her career. In her experience, people do listen. One of the unfortunate examples of this was the Rushford Flood in 2007, which Brown said was an agonizing time for the people and the county.
From countless other experiences, Brown said she learned to listen, get the facts straight, develop communication skills, relate to others and improve her leadership skills.
Her self-confidence has been just one measure of her success. In 2008, she was recognized by her peers from the Minnesota Association of County Administrators (MACA) with the Joe Ries Excellence in County Management Award, which is only given to one person a year.
Brown was also proud to serve as president of MACA in 2004 as well as on the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor's Council on Local Results and Innovation, which inspired her to develop goals for the county to be evaluated every year.
"I've seen Karen's leadership at the local and state level," shared current Commissioner Duane Bakke, who has been on the board with Karen for 15 years. He added, "She is well respected in the state, county and community." Former commissioner Don Boyum also had good things to say about Brown. "She was very good at her work and she was never stepping on people's toes."
Once she retires, Brown will take some time to go south, spend time with family and relax on the river. However, she thinks she may also find ways to encourage people to become involved in local government.
"It's a big job, but it's a rewarding job," Brown said from experience.
Brown is now passing her knowledge and advice down to Bobbie Jo Vickerman, who will take over as sole coordinator on Jan. 1. Brown has been bringing her up to speed during December.
Brown doesn't expect her last day to be anything extraordinary. She just plans on spending it around the people and employees at the county.
"It was good to be here and be in this position. I was so honored and humbled to serve," Brown concluded.
An open house for her retirement will be held in the county board room on Dec. 27 from 2 to 4 p.m.