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County closes courthouse, highway department building to public

By Anna Jauhola
The Kittson County Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency at an emergency meeting on Friday, March 20 in response to the spreading coronavirus, known as COVID-19. The commissioners called into the meeting via a digital service called GoToMeeting, which is allowed for public meetings during a peacetime emergency.
Commissioners Theresia Gillie, Corey Wikstrom and Loren Younggreen voted in favor, Commissioner Darrel Johnson voted against, and due to an electronic error, Commissioner Leon Olson was unable to vote.
Alongside the emergency declaration, the commission also approved a resolution to close the courthouse entirely to the public, which started Monday, March 23, but keep county operations going. The commissioners all voted in favor, except Olson whose connection was lost during the meeting.
Offices will remain open with some employees working from home, and those unable to work from home will stagger shifts to ensure phones will be answered. Department heads will help determine who will be able to work from home.
County Administrator Eric Christensen said they have already set up a dropbox outside the courthouse for anyone to drop off payments or documents.
The Kittson County Highway Department building on the west side of Hallock is also on total lockdown to the public, but employees will remain at work to continue providing services to the residents.
The board also voted to continue having weekly meetings on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. throughout the pandemic.
They will connect each week through GoToMeeting and, per open meetings laws, will have the upstairs meeting room at the courthouse available for the public.
The public will be checked at the northwest door through a questionnaire.
The county board also met in regular session on Tuesday, March 17 and decided to err on the side of safety and made a strong decision to keep two county employees at home, with pay. This was the main decision of the board’s initial discussions regarding pandemic planning.
The two employees had traveled recently to areas where COVID-19 has been diagnosed. The county department heads attended the meeting and some questioned the commissioners on the fairness of sending these two home with pay and making those possibly affected in the future use their own leave or take unpaid leave.
After an hour and a half of “talking in a circle,” Commission Chair Theresia Gillie passionately ground the meeting to a halt.
“We are going to err on the side of safety,” she said. “This is the lesser of two evils and this time you’re going to just have to suck it up. So you, as department heads, it is your job to be the water calmers in this. Sometimes we have to be more diligent about the citizens of our county than what we are getting paid today.”
The board approved the mandate to keep the two employees at home, with pay, and set several other instructions into effect. The board stressed the situation is ever-changing and these instructions may be altered as needed.
Employees who need to care for ill children or family, who are without daycare due to this pandemic, or don’t want to risk exposure will be treated as though they are self-quarantined and can take personal leave.
Moving forward, anyone who has traveled via mass transit, the board will request they self-quarantine for 14 days, but cannot require it. If they choose to self-quarantine, those people can take paid leave. For people who traveled otherwise, there are no restrictions at this time.
If a department head determines an ill employee can work from home, and there is work to be done, the county will set that up. Those employees would be accountable to their department heads and have to prove they’re being productive. All others who department heads determine it’s not possible to work from home, they have the choice to work from the courthouse or take personal time. Those shifts will be staggered.
The board advises against travel out of the area, but cannot restrict employees’ travel.
All offices will remain open and manned by at least one person with a rotating schedule.
In other business, the commission:
• Approved a participation agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to allow Social Services employee Carrie Gjerde to help implement an updated computer system for statewide use. The state will pay for her time up to eight hours per week.
• Approved the purchase of a new Ziegler CAT motor grader to replace an aging one, at the cost of $256,015.
• Approved the purchase of a Trimble R10-2 Model 60 single receiver kit for $20,442.85. This GPS device will help the county highway department with various projects.
• Approved bids on three projects – countywide regravel, $175,229.89 from Thygeson Construction; aggregate production, class 5, $116,000 from Schenkey, Inc.; aggregate production, class 1, $33,000 from Schenkey, Inc.
• Gave the highway department permission to advertise for 12 seasonal workers for the summer.
• Tabled a one-time step increase for any county employees who aren’t at the top step to even out an issue with lost pay when the payscale changed a few years ago. This will be discussed again at negotiations in May.

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