In a typical September, the Wright County Board of Commissioners cancels a Tuesday board meeting so the commissioners can attend the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) Annual Fall Policy Conference. The conference is designed to bring commissioners and administrators from all of Minnesota’s 87 counties together to create a platform of proposed policy changes to bring to the State Legislature.
Like so many other aspects of 2020, the AMC Fall Policy Conference will be done remotely and, instead of being conducted over three consecutive days, the conference will be broken out in pieces – with meetings on Thursday, Sept. 10, Monday, Sept. 14 and Thursday, Sept. 17. The presenters Sept. 10 will include state economist Laura Kalambokidis delivering an economic outlook for the state, Secretary of State Steve Simon discussing the state of the November elections and a session on advocacy during a budget deficit environment.
The final two days of the conference typically deal with policy questions dealing with topics pertaining to general government, environment and natural resources, transportation and infrastructure, public safety and health and human services.
However, much of the consensus-building that comes isn’t during the formal sessions. It is often in the discussions many of the county stakeholders share with one another – expressing concerns of significant importance to one or two counties that could be a concern to many others down the line.
Wright County Commissioner Darek Vetsch has taken part in the AMC policy meetings before and said it will be difficult to replicate the back-and-forth county policymakers have with all of them spread out in their own home areas rather than meeting in one location as a group.
“The one-on-one aspect of these conferences is what is important,” Vetsch said. “The idea is to meet with commissioners and officials from other counties in the state and share ideas. You can’t do that virtually. The AMC Fall Policy Conference is being done virtually and I don’t believe it will have the same value as it would have if it had been in person.”
It is during these personal interactions that issues come to light and are shared among county officials. Vetsch doesn’t think there can be the same level of conversation and information sharing done in a virtual setting.
“You’re not going to be able to get those sidebar conversations that are so valuable when it comes to developing the platform and initiatives AMC brings to the Legislature each year as an association in terms of county needs,” Vetsch said. “You just don’t have those conversations and debates over key topics when you’re doing it remotely. Instead, we’re going to get a presentation and end up being talked at instead of a back-and-forth conversation.”
AMC is going to try to make its annual fall conference as “normal” as possible under unprecedented conditions, but Vetsch has concerns that the conference will be fragmented and potentially lead to AMC losing some of its clout with legislators because of the disjointed nature of policy questions coming forward. There has been a void in communication since COVID-19 forced local governments to compartmentalize among themselves to battle the pandemic and it will create a big hurdle to get county officials to unify around specific platform planks.
Many meetings over the last several months have been required to be conducted remotely, but the AMC Fall Policy Conference is one that could see the most dramatic change by not being in person – and not a change for the better.
“When we go in the big room, people have had the time to have the sidebar conversations so they know how others feel about a specific issue,” Vetsch said. “If you’re going in the room to present something you want as part of the platform as a potential policy change, if you’re smart, you would have gone around and talked to a number of people beforehand. Just going in the room and blindsiding everyone – ‘Hey! I want to do this. What do you guys think?’ That’s where this situation is, where nobody has got together. It’s going to be a very different environment for us to discuss these topics. I worry about AMC losing some of its political value if it can’t rally counties together quickly.”