FARGO — Ex-Fargo Parks District Executive Director Joel Vettel resigned July 2 under fairly ambiguous circumstances compounded by privacy stipulations of his severance agreement, which asserted no formal announcement would be made by the park district regarding Vettel's resignation.
The agreement also called for the severance agreement itself to remain confidential and not be discussed by either Vettel or the elected Park Board members. This created a shroud of secrecy that lent itself to confusion and speculation when news broke of Vettel's resignation with no obvious explanation or rationale.
However, because the park district involves taxpayer money, North Dakota’s open meetings law required that the agreement be disclosed when The Forum requested it.
Through additional open records requests, The Forum acquired access to a glowing performance review praising Vettel’s first year as executive director that granted him an overall score of 2.35 out of 3. But this rosy impression appeared to sour by 2018, and that year’s score dropped to 1.65 out of 3.
Vettel was assessed to be "needing development" in a number of areas, particularly when it came to working with staff, with reviewers noting a “lack of sincerity.” That same year, Vettel had a disciplinary action on file for approving "an excessive amount of vacation leave" for employees, for which he later apologized.
Through an open records request, The Forum obtained a copy of a staff survey of Vettel’s performance in contemplation of his scheduled July six-month board review.
Results from this most recent survey echo the results of last year’s survey, appearing to confirm the existence of a chasm between Vettel and the board, and that colleagues continued to perceive his leadership as disingenuous and ineffective.
The survey, known as a 360 review survey, included anonymous feedback from a group of seven parks employees, possibly all directors.
Throughout the six main categories, the respondents frequently mentioned that although they thought Vettel was strong in matters requiring public speaking and public relations, they felt he didn’t have industry know-how specific to running a park district.
“Big learning curve for him coming from law enforcement. Joel has very little experience in P&R,” one reviewer wrote.
Vettel came to the executive director job after a long career in the Fargo Police Department, which he joined in 1997. However, he didn't come into the park district with zero experience. Before becoming the park district's executive director, Vettel served on the park board for a dozen years, serving twice as board president.
Under the heading “Leads and Develops Others,” a reviewer noted, “this is Joel’s weakest area,” a similar sentiment found in the 2018 survey.
Some comments expressed dissatisfaction with a perceived lack of collaboration between Vettel and park directors.
“Joel does not listen to his director group as much as he should,” one respondent wrote. Another frankly stated, “Joel and the executive team do not work well together.”
Specific projects such as the Block 9 development and the Natural Playground proposed by the Fargo Rotary groups were cited as points of contention between Vettel and directors.
Overall, there were usually two positive reviews in each group of seven, potentially speaking to the "two camps" of directors board members cited in more recent feedback.
In an area where reviewers could leave any additional comments, a respondent wrote, “It pains me to write the things I have written. I have never been in a position to not back up my boss. I hate that I must assume the responsibility to write these things now as it is terribly uncomfortable, but we need to stand up and bring attention to this.”