Trish Harren went straight to work last Monday as the new Mower County administrator.
Harren is succeeding former county coordinator Craig Oscarson, who retired after more than 33 years of serving Mower County taxpayers.
“What I love about county government is that it’s really an invisible level of government,” she said. “It’s responsible for creating quality of life for taxpayers and does really important work.”
Although Harren is new to Mower County — and southeast Minnesota — she is by no means new to the experience of county government. Prior to coming to Austin, Harren served for seven years as the first county coordinator for Roseau County and served as the victim services coordinator for three years. She became the first county administrator for Itasca County, where she served for five years.
While having a background in human resources, Harren is experienced in education after having been a high school teacher in Warroad, where she lived for more than two decades.
During Harren’s experience of county government, she acknowledged there were some differences between Mower County and the places where she previously served. However, the transition was more lateral than what she had anticipated before the move.
During Harren’s experience in county government, she recalled the struggles of northern Minnesota in the Iron Range during the 1980s as a result of the slowing economy that affected the region’s mining industry. Itasca County had its own land department which dealt with forestry and 800,000 acres of forest land, a different industry than Mower County’s agricultural roots and wind energy focus.
Mower County also has fewer labor groups, a higher poverty rate than the state average and a smaller budget, Harren stated, while Itasca County had its own medical assistance programs. However, the difference in regional workforce and demographics won’t deter Harren as she settles into her new role.
“I foresee this to be a fairly easy transition,” she said. “Usually there’s big leaps and changes, but this feels like a lateral move.”
Looking ahead to the future
Harren is adjusting to a new government structure for Mower County. While Oscarson was the county coordinator, Harren will serve as the county administrator.
Both have different structural models, as the county administrator serves as the main supervisor for all department heads in Mower County government. Harren hoped to meet with each supervisor to gain a better understanding of what the needs of each agency are.
“The county board no longer has a direct supervisor and my role can free up their time to focus on issues,” Harren added.
She also plans to implement a program similar to one she started in Itasca County called “Coffee with the County,” where there would be increased conversations between officials and constituents while improving visibility and accessibility.
“I plan to talk to each new commissioners who were elected by their district,” she said. “There’s unique challenges in each district, and as administrator, I hope to build upon the legacy and be the person that brings people together, to listen to their hopes and dreams and move forward together … I want to work collaboratively with citizens on where they want to go, and what citizens of Mower County want for us.”
Harren will explore how to deliver mandated services consistently amid a nationwide funding crisis, navigating the relationship between state legislature and county government in order to be a part of conversations, as this year the state sees new leadership. There’s also concern regarding cost-shifting of services that may be an increased burden on taxpayers.
One example includes the Department of Human Services ending a program last Monday designed to restore criminal defendants with mental illness to competency to stand trial, stating people in the program were taking up spots in state facilities and that it’s not the state’s responsibility to get people ready to stand trial, according to MinnPost.
With bed shortages statewide, there’s growing concern about where defendants will get services, and public defenders, mental health advocates and others worry those who aren’t sick enough for hospitals, but are too sick to stand trial, may end up languishing in jail for extended periods of time with no clear way for their cases to move ahead.
“This really hits our budget,” Harren said. “I hope to work with other counties to shift the cost burden back onto the state. It’s unfair to have funding balanced on the backs of our taxpayers.”
While it will take time for Harren to get adjusted to her new position, she most looks forward to being able to work with her colleagues in Mower County.
“I’m looking forward to being a part of the community,” Harren said. “I’m really conscious about standing on the shoulders of those who came before me. I’m really grateful to Craig who dealt with difficult things during his time. I’m really grateful to the people doing this work and being a recipient of their efforts. I hope to honor their work the best I can.”
While not on the clock, Harren acknowledged the importance of maintaining a separation between personal life and work.
She credits her ability to balance her responsibilities to yoga, as she’s a certified instructor, and also takes great joy in spending time with her four adult children, and grandchildren, along with her cats and dogs.