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Furness to start at WSI on Wed.

State Capitol Bureau BISMARCK - Bruce Furness will start work next Wednesday as interim executive director and CEO at Workforce Safety and Insurance. The WSI board voted unanimously Wednesday to have the former Fargo mayor lead the state workers'...

State Capitol Bureau

BISMARCK - Bruce Furness will start work next Wednesday as interim executive director and CEO at Workforce Safety and Insurance.

The WSI board voted unanimously Wednesday to have the former Fargo mayor lead the state workers' compensation agency for the next three to nine months, saying they had great faith in him to restore the public's trust. During Furness' tenure, the board will begin a search for a permanent executive director.

Furness will make an annual salary of $146,000, a figure designed to cover his commuting expenses from Fargo and housing in Bismarck.

A consultant urged the board on March 6 to hire an outside interim CEO to fill the gap between former director Sandy Blunt, who was forced out in December, and the hiring of a permanent replacement. John Halvorson, a 14-year WSI employee, has been interim CEO since Blunt left.

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The agency has been under intense scrutiny and heavy criticism for more than a year due to reports of low employee morale and other issues revealed in a state performance audit; Blunt's criminal charges, and whistle-blowing employees' allegations of unfair claims processing and other irregularities.

Board members were uniformly enthusiastic about Furness' ability.

"Clearly Mr. Furness is the best person for the job," said Mark Jackson of Fargo. "I think he has a proven track record of bringing opposing parties together."

Jackson led the search committee.

Furness is "uniquely qualified to assist in restoring the public's confidence in our organization," board Chairman Mark Gjovig of Williston said after the meeting.

Gov. John Hoeven urged Furness to apply. The governor, who has no legal authority over the agency, demanded in December that the WSI board remove Blunt, and the board did so within hours.

Furness and five others applied to be interim CEO, and they were interviewed Tuesday.

Furness, 68, was Fargo's mayor from 1994 until 2006. He's currently a senior vice president with State Bank and Trust in Fargo and worked nearly 30 years for IBM Corp. in several locations, including North Dakota. He was raised in Bismarck.

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Two Democrats seeking their party's nomination to oppose Hoeven's bid for a third term had differing views Wednesday of Furness' selection.

"I think that's a good choice," said Rep. Merle Boucher, D-Rolette, the House minority leader, calling Furness "a proven public leader."

Boucher said it's time for him and others with strong opinions about WSI to disengage.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who is opposing Boucher for the nomination, called Furness' appointment "political cover" for Hoeven and said the governor stepped in with strong suggestions for the WSI board in recent months because he feared its problems would have a "big-time" political effect on him.

Furness said that just because Hoeven asked him to apply doesn't mean he'll be doing the governor's bidding or providing Hoeven with political cover.

For one thing, Furness said, Hoeven would and will do fine in the upcoming election regardless.Furness said he and the governor have not talked about what Hoeven might wish done at WSI.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached

at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net

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