FARGO — Social services employees in Cass County are on track to get a new boss after claims surfaced that a toxic work environment centered around the current leader.

A search committee announced Tuesday, Feb. 11, that it's recommending Pearl Ferguson, former site manager in Minot for the Northland Healthcare Alliance, take over as director of the Cass County Human Services Zone Board in March. If approved, the zone board will send the recommendation to the North Dakota Department of Human Services (DHS), which could give the final nod to start salary negotiations.

Ferguson, who oversaw care for the elderly in Minot, declined to comment for this story, saying she wanted to wait for a final hiring decision before giving a statement.

The prospect of hiring Ferguson is part of a switch from county control of social services to state oversight. Several years in the making, the shift is possibly the largest change to social services in decades, DHS Chief Operating Officer Sara Stolt said.

Cass, which makes up about 25% of North Dakota’s caseload, will be its own zone.

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The search committee that selected Ferguson included three zone board members, Cass County Administrator Robert Wilson and two DHS staffers, including Executive Director Chris Jones. Jones said DHS agrees with the recommendation.

Out of 11 applicants, Ferguson was one of three finalists chosen to potentially succeed interim Zone Director Chip Ammerman, who previously served as the head of Cass County Social Services since 2008. Ammerman did not return phone messages left by The Forum on Tuesday.

Other finalists included Jann Neameyer, director of social services at the North Dakota Veterans Home in Lisbon, N.D., and Nicholas Cross, program administrator at Prairie Community Services in Fergus Falls, Minn.

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The search committee's recommendation comes about a week after the zone board reviewed a report detailing widespread dissatisfaction within social services in Cass County, particularly with Ammerman. Staff told an independent consultant they fear retaliation and being berated if they suggest changes to the department’s work environment, adding that they believe nothing will change with current leadership.

Employees have expressed concerns about low morale, heavy caseloads and poor management over the years in the form of exit interviews, letters to the county or verbally to human resources and social services leadership. It appeared no serious efforts were taken to address those concerns until Jennifer Aldinger, a former caseworker in child protection services, laid out in an April resignation letter allegations of leadership creating a hostile work environment.

That launched a noncriminal investigation by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office into child protection services, and the county later hired the independent consultant to study social services as a whole.

Ammerman previously told The Forum he was among six candidates scheduled for interviews. However, The Forum obtained a scoring chart that gives the interviewees' initials and appears to show that his meeting did not occur. Citing state law, Wilson said he could not say why the list was cut from six to five interviewees, or whether Ammerman was one of the six scheduled to be interviewed.

Wilson did confirm that Ammerman is still employed as the interim director and is expected to stay on until Ferguson takes over.

If hired, Ferguson would become the chairwoman of the zone board, Stolt said in an email to The Forum. Zone directors answer to their respective boards “with direct consultation and involvement” from DHS, she said Tuesday.

“The structure is intended to support greater alignment and collaboration with the department,” she said. “It was also designed to provide direction and information to the board regarding the board’s functions.”

Directors are not allowed to chair the board when a conflict of interest arises, and DHS can recommend disciplinary action against directors when necessary, Stolt said.

Employees also will have avenues to express concerns, the DHS said.