WASHINGTON — During Cass County Commissioner Rick Steen’s first trip back to the nation’s capital since 9/11, the elected official said he and two colleagues learned a lot and walked away with resources and relationships to address issues like the opioid crisis and workforce shortages.
The White House is working to emphasize the importance of local governments by setting up “state day events,” or conferences with county officials from all 50 states and on Thursday, Aug. 30, Steen and fellow Cass County Commissioners Chad Peterson and Mary Scherling joined county officials from throughout North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.
There, they heard from leaders in the Labor, Energy and Interior departments of the federal government.
No media were allowed inside the conference, as it was closed to the public.
Because three members of the Cass County Commission were in one place, the county board issued an announcement that the gathering constituted a quorum for a meeting, which under state law must be open to the public except under certain circumstances specified by law.
Cass County State’s Attorney Burdick said prior to the trio leaving for Washington that the situation presented an unclear picture, legally.
“The law is not particularly clear on this kind of circumstance,” he said.
On Thursday, Scherling said any meeting she goes to is about relationship building, more than anything else.
“That was their message. This is a White House that really wants to reach out and build relationships with local governments because the problems are local and the local official will know what their solutions might be,” Scherling added.
By the end of the year, every county commissioner in the country will have been invited to the White House, according to Peterson, called the policy “unprecedented,” not only from his perspective but in talking with other elected officials at the conference.
Scherling said officials like KellyAnne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, R. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, and Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, gave brief presentations and answered a few questions from the audience through an hours-long presentation.
Most valuable during the conference, Scherling said, was the release of a contact list of intergovernmental affairs officials to local government officials. She said county department heads and commissioners will use those contacts when applying for grants and funding.
She said Conway told county officials that tackling the opioid epidemic has to be a local fight.
“Ours is different than (Washington) DC and Fargo-Moorhead versus Watford City,” Scherling said.
Steen said Conway highlighted several programs available to communities, such as the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day and Drug-Free Community initiatives and what funding was available for local governments.
On the topic of workforce development, Acosta talked about having more job-specific skills and trade education in high schools and making sure technology is current.
Scherling said a good approach is having schools partner with local businesses to determine what businesses want from the workforce.
Steen said an important issue discussed by Acosta was professional licensure.
He said an example was a spouse of a member of the military who might have a teaching or nursing license that is not accepted in a certain state, making it difficult to maintain the family if a move is necessary.
The Cass County group said there was also discussion about new association group health insurance that takes effect Sept. 1.
Scherling called it “a big game changer for small businesses” who can now join together on a healthcare plan.
“It will give them a lot more clout in the market to purchase healthcare and spread the risk,” she said.
Scherling said the Office of Management and Budget discussed Fargo-Moorhead’s flood protection project and how the office prioritizes funding.
“They definitely were on track with all of that and look favorable upon projects like the F-M diversion. We were glad to hear that,” she said.
She said the county will annually request additional funding as it is needed for the diversion.
“Our (current) needs are not nearly what they're going to be down the road,” she said.
Commissioners said they will provide a debriefing on their experience and takeaways from the Washington conference at their upcoming meeting, which is set for 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept, 4.