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Journal Interview


Fri, May 11th, 2001
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Former Engineer Voight speaks outBy John TorgrimsonMonday, May 14, 2001

Today, Monday, May 14, is Steve Voigtís last day on the job as Fillmore County Highway Engineer. In March, the Fillmore County Board voted unanimously to advertise for a new engineer, allowing Voigtís one year contract to expire. Tomorrow afternoon the county board will begin interviewing candidates to replace Voigt.

In a wide-ranging interview, Voigt spoke with Journal editor John Torgrimson about his one year with the county and the events that led to his contract not being renewed.

Journal: What drew you to Fillmore County in the first place?

Voigt: My folks live in Racine and my wifeís folks live in Milwaukee. We had lived in Northwestern and Southwestern Minnesota and traveled through this area several times on the way to visit them. We often commented on how beautiful the area was.

Journal: What did you see as being some of the unique aspects of being a highway engineer in Fillmore County as compared to other places you had worked?

Voigt: There are two things that I looked at as opportunities here in Fillmore County. One was to work in Bluff Country with a more challenging topography than I was used to. The other thing I saw was the opportunity to work on flood control projects - flood retention, small dams, that sort of thing - I thought that there was so much more that could be done in this area. Otherwise, there are not a lot of differences between being a county engineer here or in some other county.

Journal: Speaking of floods, a year ago we had floods that affected county and township roads, bridges and several cities. Talk a little bit about that time and what impact flooding had on your job.

Voigt: Oh, I thought that was just a stroke of bad luck (laughing). Come to Fillmore County and two weeks on the job you have floods.

Our staff put in a lot of time assessing the extent of the damage. I spent a lot of time documenting, and estimating the cost of repairs, so that we could get emergency funding from FEMA and from the state disaster program.

Journal: How much total dollars did Fillmore County get?

Voigt: $800,000 from the state and $400,000 from FEMA.

Journal: Prior to January, you had a Highway Committee that was made up of commissioners who are no longer on the county board. Is that right?

Voigt: Yes. Donald Boyum and Robert Underbakke.

Journal: Did that Highway Committee indicate to you at any time that there were problems with your performance or in the way you did your job?

Voigt: None what so ever. They seemed to be very satisfied with my performance, often praising the work that was being done. It came as a complete shock that the county board did not want to reappoint me, especially when Mr. Bakke (Commissioner Duane Bakke) told me that boardís decision to let me go was not based on my performance. I asked that if the decision is not based on performance, then what is it based on? And I was told that they did not need to give me a reason. And the state statutes uphold that, they donít need to give a reason not to reappoint me.

Journal: So, youíre leaving county employment on Monday (today) and you still donít know why youíre being let go?

Voigt: No.

Journal: Or at least you have not been told formally by the county what reasons there are for not renewing your contract?

Voigt: I have not been told that there is a reason, and if there is a reason I have not been told what that is.

Journal: Have you heard of any rumors or gossip, things on the side, that would give you some idea of why this is happening?

Voigt: Oh yeah, I have heard rumors, but I would prefer not to propagate them. And the rumors I have heard are minor and inconsequential; trivial type items that are of little significance.

Journal: What about issues like your Five Year Plan, whether it was needed, or whether it was equitable for each district. Do you think that entered into it at all?

Voigt: Yes, I believe it did. You brought up the fact that the old Highway Committee consisted of two commissioners that are not on the board any longer. We have Commissioner Bicknese (Helen) and Commissioner Bakke, and as soon as they got on the Highway Committee they called for a performance review. There were some items that they brought up that they were concerned about. One was my decision to send out our Maintenance people at 4:30 in the morning instead of 5:00 oíclock. They said that the county board should be making that decision. I disagree, but perhaps they feel that I overstepped my bounds in establishing county policy. But I donít believe that is the reason (I am being let go). I asked Mr. Bakke for the real reason. If it had been a perfomance related issue, I believe there would have been a full meeting with all of the commissioners to discuss it. That meeting never took place.
Regarding the Five Year Plan, I told the commissioners that this was a draft, and that they could look it over. It got to be a very uncomfortable political issue. Some disagreed with it. To me, I needed the Five Year Plan as a working document, a planning tool, so I could look ahead and think about allocating resources. I put that disclaimer right on the document. I never expected the reaction I got.

Journal: Do you think the county board, and in particular the Highway Committee, micro-manages the Highway Department?

Voigt: I think they have a tendency to do that, yes. That might be another reason why I am being let go, because I wonít allow that to happen. I tried to maintain structure in the Highway Department, as well as accountability of my staff. Perhaps the board feels that all employees should be accountable directly to them. I donít believe that that is the way it should be done. I think that you hire professionals to run a department and you let the professional staff do their job.

Journal: How would you assess your relationship with your employees?

Voigt: I am not aware of any conflicts between myself and any of my employees.

Journal: What is your management style?

Voigt: My management style is more hands-off. You give people responsibility and you hold them accountable at weekly staff meetings, that type of thing. I donít ask them day to day how theyíre going about doing their job.

Journal: One criticism that I have heard is that you were gone too much with your involvement in state organizations.

Voigt: That was one comment Commissioner Bakke mentioned. When he asked me how much I was gone, I guess I didnít know exactly. I went back and looked at my time-card from the day I began up to January. I can show that I averaged six hours a week (away). If that is excessive, I guess its excessive. I was involved in a variety of state organizations. I was involved in the County Engineers Automation Committee to promote technology. I was involved in a Legislative Committee that would either testify or join other groups that were testifying at the legislature. I also attended district meetings, things like that. I would think that other department heads attend similar meetings. If the claim is that this is excessive, I guess I would disagree with that.

Journal: Are the number of road projects coming forward consistent with previous years?

Voigt: We are doing much more this year and next year. That goes back to what the board authorized (highway) to do almost a year ago when I first came on. We had an excess fund balance where we were actually being penalized some $300,000 a year for not keeping the amount down below a minimum balance. I approached the board right away and changes were made. So, we do have a very large program. Mainly the brid

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