David Christianson spent 13 years as a case manager for Watonwan County Human Services, and, though he left in 2013, he’s now returned as director of the department.

“He’s one of ours, he was a social worker here, and I was his supervisor,” said Amy Pluym, who has been acting as interim human services director and will now return to her regular position of social services supervisor. “He’s a good guy, and he’s got some really good ideas. We’re excited about it.”

The approachable Christianson worked with mental and developmental disability cases in his first stint here before working as a longterm care ombudsman with the state of Minnesota in Rochester--a role that focused heavily on “conflict resolution,” he said. He’s also owned group homes, presiding over six supervisors and roughly 100 employees, which he called “an eventful time in my life.”

It was a serendipitous set of circumstances that brought the amiable Christianson to Watonwan County’s Human Services department in 2000. His brother, Marvin, moved to Fairmont from Pennsylvania due to a medical condition, and Christianson moved down to assist his brother.

He did so without first having a job lined up, but he was able to join Human Services in Watonwan County, he said. “I truly fell in love with this county and Human Services.”

“I’ve really enjoyed working with the people in this community; they’re good, genuine people,” he added. “It’s just the right fit for me.”

Christianson said his intent is not to overhaul Human Services, but, rather, “to keep things going as well as they were.” He cited a report from DHS, a performance management team who used data from the past four years to evaluate the department, that said the county met all state and federal guidelines. “

The county did exceptionally well in all the different areas,” he said. “I just want to keep things on the right course.”

He said little turnover combined with quality supervisors has been the main reason for the department’s success. And, since he’s working with many of the same people he did during his first time around, he has a built-in trust and credibility. In his other roles, he’s proved the ability to manage people, but case managers know he understands the demands placed on them, because he had the same job for over a decade. He did note his perspective is different as a director than a case manager, and, despite regularly telling co-workers “I’m happy just being a worker bee” when he was a case manager, his goal had always been to be a director of a county.

Rich Collins, who was promoted to director in June 1995 after spending five years as fiscal supervisor in Human Services, was fired in January. The county board discussed his leadership performance January 17 in a closed session, and--during an open session January 22--the board decided, unanimously, that they’d lost confidence in his ability to manage the department. Until Christianson was hired to replace Collins--his first day was May 12--Pluym was acting as interim director. She started in Human Services in 1991, and she’s been social services supervisor since 1999.

During a special meeting in late January between the board of commissioners and employees of Human Services, the board acknowledged that Collins may have been stretched too thin, which cost him the ability to adequately supervise his employees. Part of that may be because Watonwan County is the only county in the state where Public Health is under the Human Services umbrella, but, during the January meeting, the Human Services staff said separating the two--as in other counties--would be an unwelcome change.

“I would hate to see the board separate public health from social services,” said Nikole Kolden, who has been a social worker here for 13 years. “This model serves clients better.”

On Thursday, Christianson agreed, saying, “I like the idea that Public Health and Human Services are together and work together seamlessly, because there are many programs that straddle the line between both.”

“It’s easier in-house,” he added. “When I was here before, Public Health was in a separate building, and this is easier.”

Christianson cited “time management” as the best way to avoid being “stretched too thin,” and said he wanted to keep everyone moving toward a “common goal.” “I’m really excited to be here and hope to continue the same level of service people have had in the past.”

Christianson was hired by a committee comprised of the county commissioners and a citizen representative, Karen Altenburg, according to Lisa Schumann, personnel administrative assistant.

“Of all the people we interviewed, Dave, with his past experience of working for (Human Services) and past business experience, was the most qualified. He demonstrated that he knew the importance of trust, respect and accountability,” said Mark Rentz, board chairman for the county commissioners. “His personality is one that communicates well. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with the director (role), and in time we feel he will meet and exceed these needs.”

For the complete story, please see the May 29 print edition of the St. James Plaindealer.