MOORHEAD — In June of 2020, city of Moorhead administration authorized an organizational review of the Moorhead Fire Department to address reports of internal strife, low morale, as well as intimidation and fear of a potential violent workplace event.

So reads the first paragraph of a report The Forum recently obtained from the city of Moorhead through an open records request.

The report and the fire department review were done by a consultant with cooperation from about 90% of fire department staff who agreed to contribute to the review.

According to the report, feedback gathered during the review revealed that the fire department faced significant morale and cultural challenges in a number of key areas, including:

  • Lack of confidence and trust in senior leadership
  • No defined mission, values, vision, or competencies
  • Ineffective top-down communication and "siloed" communication between shifts
  • Lack of confidence in a promotion structure that historically promoted internally based on seniority and not who was the best fit for the job
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The report was authored by Michelle Soldo, an attorney and founder of Soldo Consulting in St. Paul.

Soldo states in the report that firefighters wanted it acknowledged that bullying exists in fire stations and that they want it stopped.

"Like siblings who poke and prod each other and argue, firefighters who live and work together during 24-hour shifts are known to engage in similar behavior toward each other," Soldo wrote, adding that some of the disrespectful behavior rises to the level of bullying.

She said potentially bullying behavior reported to occur within the fire department family included yelling, profane language and name calling, as well as setting up people to fail.

In addition, the review revealed a widely expressed belief among fire department staff that ineffective and/or divisive leaders remain in their roles until they decide to retire, according to the report, which stated that city officials have acted on the findings of the review by addressing known bullying and perceived retaliatory behavior.

New hiring process

The report stated that the city recently implemented a robust hiring process that led to the hiring of two new fire department leaders — a woman from inside the department and a male candidate from outside the department — a move the report said sparked push back and undermining behavior by unsuccessful candidates who expected promotion due to their time in service.

The latter behavior, the report said, actually validated the city's hiring decisions and the report advised that moving forward the city must make clear to anyone who engages in divisive and undermining behavior that they will be given two choices: get on board and support leadership or move on to another organization.

City Manager Dan Mahli said earlier this summer that the organizational assessment of the fire department was one factor that led to an agreement the city signed in March with fire department official Richard Eggert.

The agreement allowed Eggert to voluntarily demote himself from the rank of battalion chief to the rank of firefighter while maintaining the $103,624 salary he was paid as a battalion chief.

According to language contained in the agreement, at some point prior to March the city notified Eggert that it intended to demote him from battalion chief to a firefighter position.

Eggert, a military veteran, requested a hearing on the matter, which he was entitled to under Minnesota's Veterans Preference Act.

Following the request for a hearing, the city and Eggert decided both parties would best be served if Eggert voluntarily demoted himself from battalion chief to firefighter, according to the wording of the agreement.

The agreement noted that because Eggert's action was voluntary "it is not nor can it be construed to be a disciplinary action under law, contract, policy, or the like."

It isn't clear what Eggert's pay would have been had his demotion been involuntary. The top pay for a longtime firefighter in Moorhead is about $74,000.

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Issues identified in the fire department review also may have played a role in the decision of Moorhead Fire Chief Rich Duysen to step away from that job earlier this year.

In late May, Duysen said he was leaving the post, but planned to stay employed with the city until the end of the year, when he intends to retire.

At the time, Duysen declined to say whether any issues within the department played a role in the timing of his departure as chief.

Since then, Duysen has shared that a matter involving a high-ranking fire official and other staff friction played a role in his decision.

When asked about the agreement between Eggert and the city, Duysen declined to talk about the situation in specifics, but he said that matter and other friction arising from department staff changes were factors in his decision to step aside.

Duysen said he believes promotional moves he made as chief, though not well received by some, were the right ones, but he felt leaving the chief post would help the organization move forward.

"There are a lot of quality people there that deserve to have a very positive work environment. That job is stressful enough without all the distractors," Duysen said in an interview earlier this summer.

'Change is not optional'

City Manager Dan Mahli has said he could not discuss the agreement with Eggert in detail, but he has confirmed it was one outcome of the organizational assessment of the overall health of the fire department.

"Generally, if there is a problem we're going to address it and we're going to be honest about it," Mahli said.

Eggert's employment history with the city shows that he was hired as a firefighter in 1992 and became a lieutenant in 1999.

He was named an assistant fire chief in 2010 and a battalion chief in January, when the job of assistant fire chief was renamed.

Eggert became a firefighter again on March 23, after he and city officials signed the agreement changing his status.

According to city records, Eggert was an assistant fire chief in 2017 when he received an oral reprimand from Duysen. The records state Eggert was involved in a disagreement with someone that escalated into a conflict, during which Eggert "engaged in an angry outburst, including yelling, swearing, and making provoking gestures."

Records provided by the city also say Eggert made statements that a reasonable person would consider "intimating and/or threatening" and the reprimand Eggert received warned him not to violate city and fire department conduct policies in the future, or it could result in disciplinary action "up to and including discharge."

The report outlining the recent fire department review stated that city officials did not disregard or ignore staff concerns identified in the review, but instead took action, including the implementation of processes aimed at identifying and addressing behaviors that negatively affect the work environment.

"City administration did its part to set the state for organizational change; now Moorhead Fire Department staff must do their part," Soldo wrote in her report.

"Change is not optional; it is imperative. MFD must raise the behavioral bar," Soldo added.

Mahli said that since the review was completed city officials have been communicating and working with the fire department to move forward, adding that morale and staff satisfaction are key components of effectiveness, productivity, and retention.

"It was important to investigate, raise awareness and take action," Mahli said.

"Bottom line, we heard from fire department staff and are working to address concerns together," he added.