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Beltrami's Vene makes the case for government reform

Joe Vene grew up on the Iron Range. When he graduated from high school, his father gave him two choices: "You come in the ground with me or go to college."

Not wanting to work in the mines, Vene took college as his choice, but not long after entering college, he joined the U.S. Army. Thus began a career of public service. Vene spent many of those years in Bemidji as superintendent of the Northwestern Minnesota Juvenile Center.

Now a Beltrami County commissioner, he continues public service by pushing two major initiatives which he has adopted as key policy issues. One involves a special interest group -- more than 30,000 veterans. The other would have statewide impact on how government is run.

Vene's efforts to secure a 90-bed state veterans nursing home in Bemidji will be the subject of a future column. But here we will learn about Vene's effort to use the bully pulpit to put forth a Beltrami County idea which is being discussed statewide.

Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy several years ago approached the County Board with what he called Strategy-Aligned Management. The board embraced the idea, which is based on an objective-based goal-setting process. It sets objectives for county service providers and holds them accountable.

The idea gained a lot of attention, and Murphy is a frequent presenter to other counties interested in management ideas. Vene, however, thinks that this objective-based plan can be used in the relationship counties have with state government. After all, counties are only an extension of the state, a global provider of services the state deems necessary for citizens.

"We need to work across jurisdictional lines and shared services," said Vene. As examples here he cited the Beltrami County effort to help Mahnomen and Lake of the Woods counties as well as the city of Bemidji with information management services. "There are various social services combinations that we may offer between counties," he said.

State Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, believes Vene in that state government reforms can be made to improve services. He is the chief author of the Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration Act, also known as the MAGIC Act. That bill, also co-sponsored by Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, was approved by a 62-1 vote on last day of the session in May.

Now the bill is before the House, where it is authored by Rep. Carol MacFarlane R-White Bear Lake. Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, is a co-sponsor.

"I understand completely that we are creations of the Legislature," says Vene. "The fear on the part of state government and its agencies should not be that we're going to become some sort of out-of-control mechanism upon which there are no checks or balances. We're still indeed going to be partners with me Legislature."

He is a vibrant voice for Beltrami County on the issue, but he also speaks from the bully pulpit as first vice president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, an organization which represents nearly all of the state's 87 counties. Vene adds that there are resolutions of support for the MAGIC Act from all 87 counties.

"In the House there is momentum being gained and we believe that the governor and his staff are already seeing the merit of championing some semblance of a redesign throughout the state, based on the county diversity and uniqueness -- those kinds of things where there are pockets of smaller counties that cannot provide services and can partner up with population-based counties to provide services because of that population base," he said.

Vene says he doesn't want to sound "too presumptuous" in using his post as AMC first vice president to lobby for issues before the Legislature, but notes that "you hope to provide leadership and leadership comes to you as much as you come to it."

Beltrami County comes first, Vene told his AMC colleagues. But after that he would work on issues affecting all counties. With election as first vice president, it's obvious that he has found that stamina to carry extra duties. "As part of the executive committee you are heavily involved in a lot of hearings," he said, adding that it reminds him of the time as Juvenile Center superintendent lobbying heavily for bonding dollars for a new facility.

"It is awesome the trust that is bestowed upon you by the public," Vene said. "The public trust is a magnificent thing. And I dare not fail the public that we all serve."

Brad Swenson retired after more than three decades with the Pioneer. He was the newspaper's award-winning Opinion page and political editor. He can be reached at