Fargo parks chief put on improvement plan after board criticizes his leadership
The Fargo Park Board chose Dave Leker, a park district employee since 1999, as the executive director in 2020 after his predecessor abruptly resigned following a negative performance review.
FARGO — The Fargo Park District's executive director, Dave Leker, is working under the scrutiny of a performance improvement plan, enacted because park board members say he has been unenthusiastic about receiving input from the public and has not been communicating enough with the board.
“I believe that historically he hasn’t sought out the public's input or the board members' input,” board member Vicki Dawson told The Forum.
Leker has worked for the park district since 1999 . The board chose him as the director in early 2020 after his predecessor, Joel Vettel, abruptly resigned in 2019 following a negative performance review.
For Leker, the board has written performance reviews that are a mix of praise and criticism, with some board members skeptical of his leadership ability. The reviews, which include comments from anonymous board members, are compiled by the park district's human resources department and given to Leker. The Forum obtained copies of the reviews through a public records request.
“Sometimes it feels like the people in our community are seen as a burden to Dave and staff,” one board member wrote in Leker’s November 2020 review. “I’m not sure he values the role of the commissioners and the importance of building a working relationship with them individually or as a whole. This is a big miss on his part as the commissioners represent the customers of the park district — tax payers of Fargo.”
“Dave’s a great guy (and) I think the world of him,” board member Jerry Rostad told The Forum. But Rostad added that there have been times when he felt his questions and input went unheard by Leker.
The park board and Leker collided in March of 2022 when board members brought in an attorney after they were made aware that Leker was not in compliance with his contract, which requires him to establish primary residency in Fargo.
Leker had been renting an apartment in downtown Fargo for $510 a month, according to his lease agreement. However, he was still primarily living in his West Fargo home, according to a letter sent to Leker from the park district's attorney.
The attorney told Leker that he had 30 days to correct this or the park board would have cause to fire him.
Now, Leker and park board members all say his primary residence is in Fargo. He still owns his riverside West Fargo home, according to property records. However, he is allowed to have multiple properties, according to his contract.
After Leker received low performance review scores in both 2021 and 2022, the board reached out to the human resources department for advice, according to HR Director Stacy Kruger. Kruger suggested the performance improvement plan as an option, and drafted it after being directed by the board to do so, Kruger told The Forum via email.
Fargo Park Board President Dawn Morgan told the HR department that she thought Leker's review form needed updating to provide a more accurate picture. As a result of redoing the review form to provide more detail, the performance improvement plan came into being, Morgan said.
"It wasn't something that we (the board) voted on," Morgan told The Forum. "So for me, it was more like HR business and ... I do not get involved with all of the things that they do."
Morgan and board vice president Joe Deutsch met with Leker and discussed the performance improvement plan, Kruger said. Morgan and Leker signed the plan in January, according to documents.
The plan outlines that Leker is expected to provide weekly updates on his improvement progress to the board president and vice president.
Since embarking on his performance improvement plan Leker has made strides forward, board members say, but they note that there is still room to grow.
Currently, Leker is halfway through his performance improvement plan, which runs from Feb. 1 to May 31.
Leker's three-page performance improvement plan lays out steps to allow the board to measure progress. Among these steps are requiring attendance at two community functions each month to enhance the park district's relationships with community partners and seeking professional development in communication skills with public boards.
To allow Leker the time to focus on honing his leadership skills, the park district hired two deputy directors in December 2022 after an independent consulting firm determined that staffing was stretched thin across the organization due to recent organizational growth.
“The director is getting pulled in so many different directions,” park board member Aaron Hill said. “There is definitely some improvement to be made in some of the leadership aspects but he needs to have the opportunity to do that with these deputies.”
Leker said he's been working with the board and they are improving communication on both ends. In accordance with his performance improvement plan, Leker has been meeting one-on-one with board members twice a month to keep them up-to-date.
These opportunities to connect are helping to build better relationships between Leker and board members, according to Deutsch.
As part of the recent restructuring, the park district has created a community relations department that focuses on communicating with the public and increasing their outreach.
The park district has seen great success so far, Leker said. The district hosted the first ever State of the Parks address and solicited public input for the Island Park and Yunker Farm Park masterplans.
“Over the last couple of months, I think it is getting better,” Leker said.
In 2022, an anonymous board member, writing a performance review of Leker, summed things up this way, “I have heard Dave has made strides in his overall approach over the last two years, but this upcoming year (2023) will be a critical one for Dave in this role. With two Deputy Directors in place, the time is now to prove that he is the right person for this role."
When Leker’s performance improvement plan wraps up in May, board members will discuss their options.
The Fargo Park District will continue to provide wonderful things, Dawson said, even while in the midst of helping the executive director become a stronger leader.
During the last three years, the park district has been coordinating the Fargo Sports Complex project, Island Park Pool renovation, Yunker Farm Park reimagining and the now-completed Broadway Square.
“We’ve accomplished a lot over the last few years,” Leker said. “I know it hasn’t all been smooth, but we have a lot of things to be proud of and we have a lot of cool things coming to the Fargo area.”