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Rock County Administrator Craig Knutson retiring after 35 years of service

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Catherine W. Idzerda
July 27, 2014

JANESVILLE—When retiring Rock County Administrator Craig Knutson talks about his management style, it sounds like boilerplate.

“Treat board members with respect.

“Provide them with all the information.

“Bring the stakeholders together.

“Let people do their jobs."

On paper, it looks like material crafted by a marketing firm, the same kind of verbiage that makes some people roll their eyes and mutter.

At one point in his retirement interview, Knutson said, “If you present information in a rational way and that information is as clear as you can make it, the individuals and the (voting) body will come to a rational decision.”

Cynical readers and journalists might think: “Right, that's exactly how it happens.”

But Knutson believes it, and his tenure as county administrator is marked by a series of quiet successes.

In the middle of difficult discussions about issues such as downsizing the old county nursing home, creating a consolidated dispatch center, expanding the jail or changing the way human services are provided, Knutson kept a low profile.

When asked for an opinion, he often uttered a phrase now familiar to department heads, board members and journalists: “That's really a policy decision.”

Knutson's last day in the county administrator's office is Friday, Aug. 1. He will be succeeded by Josh Smith, one of his former assistants.

ROCK COUNTY ROOTS

Knutson grew up on a farm near Clinton settled by his great-great grandfather Gulick Knutson in 1846. 

Like other farm kids of his generation, Knutson started his day before 6 a.m. He milked cows, picked eggs from under fractious hens, fed hogs, cleaned barns and spent the humid days of summer baling hay and straw.

When he was 15 or 16, his father started a business selling chain saws out of the basement. That eventually led to a larger business selling John Deere consumer products such as chain saws, snowmobiles and lawn mowers.

The young Craig worked there, too, repairing equipment and working with customers.

“I still have a working push mover that's 40 years old,” Knutson said.

The hours and responsibilities of farm work must have made everything else—working in his father's business, college—seem easy.

“It does give you a good work ethic,” Knutson said.

Knutson went on to get a bachelor's degree from Luther College in Iowa and planned to teach high school history and the social sciences.

After college, he worked in his father's business and on the farm. After about two years, he returned to school to get a master's in public administration.

His motivation?

The job, he said, allows him to “be in a position to affect public affairs for the good of society.”

Knutson started as assistant to County Administrator Charles Hetrick in 1979. In 1984, Knutson became administrator.

Before Knutson, county administrators had short tenures, sometimes lasting less than two years.

Phil Boutwell, former assistant to the county administrator and now deputy director of human services, credits Knutson's longevity with his “ability to put himself in the other guy's shoes.”

“People trust him,” Boutwell said.

That trust was engendered by Knutson's respect for people, Boutwell said.

Consider these case studies:

CONSOLIDATED DISPATCH

Sheriff Robert Spoden remembers the days before Rock County had a consolidated 911 dispatch center.

In 1992, when Spoden was still a patrol deputy, protests were breaking out in cities across the country over the acquittal of three Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, an African American man.

“We carried Beloit radios with us in our cars to monitor the situation, just in case we needed to respond,” Spoden said.

Without the radios, Beloit's dispatch would have had to call the county's dispatch center, who then would have relayed the information to officers in the field—who might be two blocks away from in incident in the field.

The consolidated system seems like an obvious way to do business, what Knutson would refer to as a “rational decision.”

But many large counties in Wisconsin still don't have a consolidated system, said David Callender, government affairs associate for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Consolidation requires police, fire and sheriff's departments to set aside ingrained territorialism. Towns have to work with cities, and everyone has to work with county government.

Knutson was able to bring all the stakeholders, including then-Sheriff Joe Black, to the table, Spoden said.

People respected Knutson and Black, and their efforts made the dispatch center a reality and helped it get through its bumpy first years.

“I can't stress this enough: Craig is very intelligent,” Spoden said. “He retains information. He has an astonishing knowledge base. He has a very honest, very logical, calm demeanor.”

The result?

In his retirement interview, Knutson can quietly boast, “We have the only fully accredited consolidated dispatch system in Wisconsin.”

UW-ROCK COUNTY DORMITORY

People attending a meeting of the full county board for the first time might wonder if any of the 29 supervisors have opinions.

Buy the job center property for several million dollars?

“Aye,” they say.

Pay close to $500,000 for an outdoor yard at the Youth Services Center?

“Aye,” once again.

The meetings of the full county board are uneventful, with much of the work done in committees.

That's were Knutson or one of his department heads “presents information in a rational way,” giving supervisors all the options and associated costs, eliminating surprises.

If you want to see supervisors get lively, ask them to vote on something in a hurry, especially if they haven't seen all the options.

On Nov. 21, supervisors were asked to approve a resolution transferring not more than four acres to the UW-Rock County Foundation to build a dorm.

Foundation officials had only recently gone to the county with the plan.

Foundation officials and UW-Rock County Dean Carmen Wilson told supervisors they had to approve the resolution that night so it could go the UW System Board of Regents. The foundation wanted to break ground in less than two months.

The plan, they said, was good for the community, good for the university and good for the Janesville School District's plan to recruit Chinese students—a rational choice.

The minutes of the meeting convey what was said but do little to convey supervisors' irritation with the rush and the lack of information and options.

Supervisor Ed Nash, an attorney, “had trouble” working with the yet unformed nonprofit Rock Residential Association.

Supervisor Hank Brill asked them why they couldn't flip the building 90 degrees so the neighbors wouldn't have as much light pollution.

Supervisor Rick Richard “encouraged board members to consider” the implications of rushing such a plan.

Supervisor Louis Peer was “bothered”—he was practically growling at this point— by the lack of involvement of the neighbors, whom the county had only met with the night before.

Supervisor Eva Arnold, who looks like someone's sweet auntie, delivered one of her classic set downs, a sly zinger uttered in the blandest of tones.

It went on for more than an hour.

In the end, board members allowed the resolution to go forward with the stipulation that they would have final say over the site plan.

Although the regents approved the plan for the dorm in December, ground has still not been broken.

POLICY DECISIONS

Knutson almost never speaks during committee or county board meetings, allowing his department heads to present their information.

When asked for an opinion on an issue in a meeting or an interview, Knutson would say, “That's a policy issue,” meaning that it was up to the elected body to decide.

“Craig always recognized the separation between his office and policy making,” Boutwell said. “He did not weigh in, he would not steer an issue.”

Spoden commented on it, as well.

Both men said Knutson brought innovative ideas to the board and then let them decide.

“He could explain things so people understood them, and he could do it without being patronizing,” Boutwell said.

As for Knutson, he said the secret is to “hire people that are smarter than you are.”

“By and large, I've had good people working for me over the years,” Knutson said.

Because he so infrequently voices an opinion on “policy decisions” or weighs in at board meetings, when he does speak, it makes an impression.

At a recent joint meeting of the developmental disabilities board and human services committee, Knutson told the assembled group that it was “time to move to Family Care,” the program that would change the way social services are offered to frail elderly and people with developmental and physical disabilities.

He quietly laid out the arguments, tried to calm fears and invoked the needs of the people on the waiting list.

The room was silent. No rustling papers. No whispered asides. Even the newly elected supervisors, who had no past history with Knutson, listened intently.



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