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Ternes resigns as Fargo police chief, deal will pay him through July 2015

FARGO - Keith Ternes has stepped down as the city's police chief in the face of a groundswell of criticism from officers who say his handling of internal discipline has created low morale in the department.

Chief Ternes resigns
Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes speaks at City Hall on Monday, Nov. 10, 2014, following the City Commission's approval of his resignation and an agreement to place him on paid administrative leave until July 31, 2015.

FARGO – Keith Ternes has stepped down as the city’s police chief in the face of a groundswell of criticism from officers who say his handling of internal discipline has created low morale in the department.

City commissioners voted Monday to approve a severance package, which pays Ternes more than $98,000 over eight months, and they named Deputy Chief David Todd as interim chief until a national search for a replacement starts in the spring.

“We’re doing this for the best,” Commissioner Mike Williams said of the leadership change. “It’s bigger than ourselves.”

City leaders said they were recently taken aback when more than 70 officers came forward to discuss the department’s troubles with a city committee appointed to review police disciplinary practices after the suicide of Lt. Jeff Skuza in March. It was this surprise that led city officials to have conversations with Ternes about him leaving the department, Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

“It was a mutual decision that we all made together,” Mahoney said.


Despite officers’ complaints about his management style, Ternes put a positive spin on his resignation, which he described as an early retirement.

“Over the last several days, weeks, I think people have been approaching this with a strong sense of somberness,” he said at a news conference in City Hall. “I feel quite the contrary.”

Ternes – who served 28 years with the department, 8½ of those as chief – said the change opens new doors for him at a time when he was approaching retirement. He said he plans to keep teaching classes for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and that he’s been flirting with other opportunities, which he didn’t elaborate on.

In September, Ternes told The Forum that he was occasionally asked how much longer he was going to be chief. “I don’t want to leave,” he said then. “This is a great group of people.”

Speaking at police headquarters, Todd offered a vision of a department with a healthy work environment. “Our department will move forward to find ways to bring healing within the department and renewed optimism into our organization,” he said. “We will get it together.”

Todd, a 27-year veteran of the force, said he’ll visit with his staff and the police review committee before he makes changes in the department, which has about 150 officers. Though one immediate alteration will be to have the city administrator, a city commissioner and the city’s human resources director review significant disciplinary actions taken against officers, Mahoney said.

“It is kind of a layer of oversight, and I’m fine with that,” Todd said.

For the past eight months, Todd’s been in charge of the investigations unit, and before that, he spent eight years as the head of the patrol division. Along with Todd, Deputy Chief Pat Claus, Deputy Chief Todd Osmundson and Lt. Joel Vettel were the main candidates considered for the interim chief position, Mahoney said.


Following the recommendation of City Administrator Pat Zavoral, the City Commission decided not to start the search for Ternes’ replacement until the spring because of possible budget constraints involved with footing Todd’s annual salary, which increases from $109,000 to $130,000, while also paying Ternes’ $148,000 salary until the end of July.

‘Officers always’

Boosting officer morale is just one challenge Todd faces.

He takes over at a time when the department is short about 20 officers because of vacancies, injuries, family leave and military deployments. There’s also talk of moving the department toward becoming nationally accredited, a lengthy process that Todd may initiate, Mahoney said.

Wanting to offer a glimpse of Todd’s leadership philosophy, Mahoney asked Todd to explain the meaning of a plaque over his office door.

“It says, ‘Mission first, officers always,’ ” Todd said. “It’s paramount to get the mission done for our Police Department and our community, but while we’re getting that mission done, we should look for ways to take care of our officers.”

Todd described himself as a leader who’s a servant to his officers and to Fargo residents. “Every day, I should be competing to keep this job,” he said.

Asked if he’ll apply to replace Ternes, Todd demurred. “Well, why don’t you give me a few months,” he said, smiling.


Even with Ternes’ departure, the work of the police review committee will continue, said committee chairman Brian Berg. The committee is set to meet Thursday, and it will present its findings to city commissioners on Nov. 24.

The City Commission formed the review committee in September, a few days after Lt. Skuza’s widow, Sherrie Skuza, wrote a scathing letter that was published in The Forum. Her letter alleged that Ternes’ disciplinary policies contributed to her husband’s suicide, which happened while he was under scrutiny for trying to cover up an accidental Taser discharge.

She wrote that the main cause of her husband’s suicide was “the long drawn-out internal affairs process that held him prisoner for 23 days.”

In response, Ternes stood by the investigation, saying it was thorough, fair and completely transparent to Lt. Skuza.

‘No smoking gun’

The review committee initially expected to hear from just a few officers, and there were concerns that some would be too afraid of retaliation to come forward. Instead, committee members were inundated with requests for interviews from officers, their supervisors, Sherrie Skuza and administrators of area law enforcement agencies familiar with Fargo police morale, Berg said.

Committee members said those they spoke with shared the same theme about inconsistent discipline and about the lack of positive reinforcement.

Berg said that generally, officers felt the department’s policies were sound but had concerns with how they were carried out.


“There was no smoking gun here that we discovered,” he said. “It just was a lot of little issues.”

Mahoney said he, Commissioner Dave Piepkorn and other city officials met with Berg on Nov. 3 for a preview of what the officers’ interviews revealed. The next day, Berg and a fellow committee member met with Ternes, who received a similar preview, Berg said.

After that, there were several meetings between Ternes and city leaders, including Mayor Dennis Walaker, about how to proceed. Out of those discussions, the chief’s resignation became a possibility, Mahoney said.

“We all sat down and talked to him and said, ‘Here’s where we think this is going,’ ” Mahoney said.

Ternes said he understood the direction things we’re headed.

“One of the common themes that seemed to be coming forward was just, you know, it might not be a bad time just to make a change – not that anything was substantially broken,” he said. “After 8½ years as the police chief, I’m not beyond admitting that, you know, things become a little stale.”

The City Commission held a special meeting Monday to address the matter. Commissioners at first conferred behind closed doors, saying they were allowed to meet privately to discuss Ternes’ severance agreement. The commission later met publicly and, with little discussion, voted unanimously to accept the agreement and to appoint an interim chief.



Deputy Mayorof Fargo Tim Mahoney shares a laugh with Deputy Chief David Todd on Monday, Nov.10, 2014, after Todd was introduced as interm chief for the Fargo Police Department. David Samson / The Forum

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