by Paul Rignell
Sherburne County Administrator Brian Bensen spent most of his youth on a Sherburne County farm that had been in his family for five generations.
As an adult, he has worked to preserve and enhance a high quality of life for all other county residents from Elk River to Clear Lake, near his family farm in Haven Township.
The land was where his mother, Helen, had been raised after her father did chores there a generation earlier.
When Brian, the only boy and youngest of three siblings, moved to the farm with his parents and sisters from St. Cloud where his father, John, had been raised, they brought Helen’s father back to the land to live with them.
Growing up with an extra generation of wisdom and awareness of the land was a gift that Bensen has always cherished and likely played a part in his county career. “That was a wonderful connection I had to the land and the history,” he told the Star News.
Bensen earned a teaching degree from the University of Nebraska while studying history and political science (following some interests of his father, who was a high school teacher), and he briefly considered applying for law school.
He joined the workforce as a tutor and substitute teacher near his part of the county, where he also took on and completed graduate work in public finance, economics and administration through St. Cloud State University. “I’d always been interested in public policy, how laws get made,” said Bensen, a past president of the student council at St. Cloud Tech High School. “I grew up with the interest and stuck with it.”
He expanded his focus on the county environment from his family’s land to all Sherburne County land in 1978, when he took a job as solid waste officer. Six years later he became county director of planning and zoning, a title he held for 15 years before accepting his current role as administrator.
“I’ve worked hard to remember who I work for, that I work for the public, trying to keep our taxes down and the business climate growing,” Bensen said.
He has served on the board for the Minnesota Association of County Administrators (MACA) and now serves on the state Pollution Control Agency Citizens Board.
In addition to meeting with the Sherburne County Board often four mornings per month at the Government Center in Elk River, Bensen’s duties usually take him to at least two other meetings somewhere each week, sometimes in St. Cloud.
He attended an annual MACA conference there this month, where association President Sharon Hanson, the administrator in Pipestone County, honored Bensen with the 2012 Excellence in County Management Award.
‘Calm, gentle spirit, and a great guy’
“I was surprised and very honored,” said Bensen of receiving the award. “It’s a terrific thing when peers recognize your work. It felt great.”
Called at her office in Pipestone, Hanson said Bensen is a model for top service in county administration. “I’ve been able to see (Brian) interact with other administrators and present information,” she said. “I think he’s a calm, gentle spirit, and a great guy.”
Among the board in Sherburne County, Rachel Leonard is the longest-tenured commissioner of those serving in the current term. She spoke highly of Bensen’s teamwork and organizational skills.
“He has a vast knowledge,” Leonard told the Star News. “He works well with department heads, and I think that’s a crucial element, too.”
She said Bensen has worked for, and answered to, at least a dozen different commissioners through his time as administrator. “Each of us has our own personality, and our own background, but what we have in common is we feel like we know what is best for our constituents,” Leonard said, noting Bensen must take and carry out direction from a five-member board. “He’s good at it,” she added. “He comes through for us.”
Bensen said he enjoys that aspect of the work, “to fill a need where the board sees something lacking, or knows we could do something better.” Each task requires new study, he added — “There is challenge in carrying out projects, seeing them through.”
He no longer has an active role in farming, but enjoys making repairs when needed on lawn mowers or other machinery he uses on the home lot (part of the original farm) that he has shared with wife, Jan, a financial planner, for 25 years. They have three adult children.
Away from home and sometimes out of the county, Brian enjoys hunting for ducks and deer, along with some fishing. Through the ice, or from a boat? “I like it warm,” he said. “You never seem to get out enough.”