FARGO — Cass County commissioners have hired a Fargo attorney specializing in employment issues to investigate concerns about the working environment in the 160-employee social services agency.

Patricia Monson of the Center for Mediation & Consultation in Fargo will interview workers and county officials, conduct an employee satisfaction survey and report back to the county board with a plan for improvements.

She will be paid $275 per hour and she said in the agreement approved Monday, Nov. 18, that she didn't know how long the investigation would take.

The motion to hire her passed on a 3-2 vote, as newly appointed Commissioner Ken Pawluk and Commissioner Rick Steen opposed the decision.

They said they were concerned about the cost and questioned whether the investigation was necessary after the sheriff's department investigated the complaints of a hostile working environment in the child protection services unit. They found nothing illegal, but found deep dissatisfaction with management and an overwhelming caseloads in the 14-member unit.

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"Do we really need to spend $275 an hour to get this done?" Steen asked.

The two thought Monson should review the sheriff's report first and suggest changes based on that. They also suggested putting a price limit on the investigation.

Commissioners Mary Scherling, Chad Peterson and Duane Breitling voted in favor of hiring Monson and thought her investigation needed to get underway as soon as possible as issues have been simmering since they came to a head six months ago in the child protection unit.

Scherling added there was high turnover in the department and "that costs a lot of money, too."

"We need to stop the bleeding," she said.

Peterson said he thought it needed to be an "independent" review and that they needed suggestions on how to fix the problems in the department.

Scherling also thought it should be a department-wide study.

Social Services Director Chip Ammerman said he liked the idea of the study but said he hoped employees would "take ownership" of any suggested cultural changes.

The board directed County Administrator Robert Wilson and State's Attorney Birch Burdick to work with Monson on a plan for her investigation, estimate a figure for total cost of her work and report back in two weeks.

Scherling suggested hiring a special investigator at a meeting last month. In that meeting, Ammerman laid out a three-page plan to address the issues, including changes for the workflow, himself, Family Services Division Manager Linda Dorff and unit supervisors.

The investigation stems from the resignation letter of Jennifer Aldinger. She was a caseworker in the child protection unit for two months before resigning in April, and her letter detailed allegations of bullying by Ammerman, Dorff and her supervisor Rick Van Camp, as well as increased caseloads that had become unmanageable. Seven caseworkers wrote a letter to county officials in June 2018 raising similar concerns about unmanageable caseloads.