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Editorial: City of West Fargo should redo process to select police chief

The city of West Fargo should stop and start over its process to select a new police chief.

We say this not because the finalists for the job are unqualified. They are qualified.

Rather, city officials have gone so out of their way to make the hiring process secretive that no resident should have confidence the chief will be fairly selected.

The final straw in this botched process was declared recently, when the city announced elected city commissioners would interview the final two chief candidates in a manner intended to circumvent state open meetings laws.

"The city commissioners will be scheduled to ensure no more than two are present at applicable events to maintain the private meeting status," the city declared in a statement.

Earlier this week, the city attorney advised commissioners and city staff that this final selection process should be done in the open, but it was still unclear at press time whether those changes would happen.

It seems city officials are purposefully choosing to keep residents in the dark on hiring what is arguably one of the most important and highly paid city positions.

As bad as this is, it's unfortunately only the latest example of how the city clearly intends to keep its police chief selection far from transparent. Consider the following:

• Applications for the position were initially kept secret, a violation of state law.

• The initial round of interviews were private, even though the law dictates such meetings of committees working on behalf of elected city leaders should be public.

• This same committee of mostly non-elected city officials narrowed 12 applicants to three finalists in private. None of the four high-ranking internal West Fargo Police Department candidates made the cut, but the public doesn't know why. No notice of meetings or interview notes were made public, two other violations of state law.

• No general West Fargo residents were involved in the vetting process. Instead, three city staff members—and one Fargo city staff member—narrowed down the applicants, along with one elected city commissioner.

The last time West Fargo selected a police chief, the city promoted someone from within the department. Some people criticized the city back then for not opening the process to outsiders.

This time, the process was opened to those outside the department, but city officials have done everything they can to keep the selection process private.

Both approaches are not worthy of one of North Dakota's fastest-growing cities. West Fargo, like any city its size, has challenging police work. Public safety is paramount for a city that prides itself on being family friendly.

West Fargo deserves a transparent police department, and a transparent process to select its next police chief.

We can't expect our police force to uphold our laws if the elected officials tasked with choosing our police leader won't abide by those same laws.

For this reason, the city of West Fargo should stop and start over its process to select a new police chief. And, this time, the public should be welcomed in rather than barred.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.