FARGO — Cass County Human Services has its first long-term director lined up to start next month, and the interim leader who was at the center of a report that was critical of management likely will be moved to another post within the department.
The Human Services Zone Board voted unanimously on Tuesday, Feb. 18, to hire Pearl Ferguson, former site manager at Northland Healthcare Alliance in Minot, pending background and reference checks. She will start March 16 and be paid an annual salary of $101,425.
Ferguson told The Forum she has a passion for serving her staff and community in a way that improves quality of life. The transition of county services into state-managed zones is what drew her to the job.
"It's a really exciting time to be at the beginning of something very innovative," Ferguson said. "You get to foster its growth and development and help drive it into the future."
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Ferguson will be the first long-term director since the North Dakota Department of Human Services took over social services funding across the state. Once managed by each county, social services agencies were consolidated into regions run by respective zone boards and DHS.
The move was meant to find ways to best serve employees, clients and the state consistently, DHS leaders said. Cass is among several large counties that stand alone as their own zones, but employees still answer to a board and DHS.
Ferguson will replace Chip Ammerman, Cass County Social Services director since 2008. He stayed on as the interim zone director and is expected to get another position in the county's human services department, to be decided by Ferguson.
Ammerman was criticized in a report that detailed his staff's low confidence in management. An independent consultant found staff had a sense of hopelessness — employees felt they could not bring up suggestions for change without fear of retaliation or backlash from Ammerman and other leaders.
The report laid out several recommendations, including the option to fire Ammerman. The interim director previously said he applied for the long-term position and was among six candidates scheduled for an interview in early February.
A panel that recommended Ferguson for the job only interviewed five applicants. The county declined to comment on why Ammerman's interview was canceled, citing state law that says it only has to release information on three finalists.
Ammerman has not returned messages left by The Forum asking why he was not interviewed. He declined to speak to a reporter as he left Tuesday's meeting.
The Zone Board is expected to decide at its March 16 meeting possible disciplinary action for Family Services Division Manager Linda Dorff and Child Protection Services supervisor Rick Van Camp. The two were criticized for poor leadership in the report and could be subject to an improvement plan, suspension, reassignment or termination of employment.
Dorff did not return a message left by The Forum seeking comment. Van Camp was out of the office when a reporter tried to reach him by phone on Tuesday.
Ferguson said she wants to implement what she called participatory leadership and decision-making — she would solicit staff for input and foster synergy that shows workers she will help, support and advocate for them.
"When someone's idea gets used to address a staffing issue, then there is a sense of pride that develops out of that," she said.
There will be times Ferguson will have to put her foot down and make tough decision, she said, but she wants to bring joy back into social services.
"Obviously, people are in a place where they're ready to change, and so to be able to be a part of that again — and bring my expertise and my passion — was really important to me," she said. "I think that people should be able to wake up in the morning and love the job they're going to do. They should leave at the end of the day feeling that they accomplished something."
Ferguson graduated from the University of Montana-Western (Dillon) with a bachelor's degree in business management. She also has separate master's degrees in healthcare administration and organizational leadership. She is expected to graduate in June with a Ph.D. in organizational development and leadership from Ashford University in San Diego.