MINOT, N.D. — According to a city of Minot source, in early December, multiple employees of the city were brought to what has been described to me as a police department "interrogation room" and told they could be fired for, allegedly, speaking to me.
How did we get there?
Over the past year, I've written several columns critical of the city of Minot.
I did not like that the city was doubling fees for people living in its extra-territorial jurisdiction.
When the city held what was supposed to be a public meeting, at which public business was conducted, in a location roughly two hours (round trip) from the city, I filed an open meetings complaint with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office. He ruled the meetings were illegal.
I've been critical of Minot City Manager Tom Barry's decision to take himself (and, oddly, the fire chief) on a pricey trip to Nashville for a conference, not to mention the City Council approving a pretty lavish five-year contract for Barry that's worth about $1 million in total compensation. That contract includes a one-year buyout clause, meaning taxpayers would have to pay Barry for a year to make him go away, and an automatic renewal for another five years.
It adds up to a lot of criticism. But this column isn't really about whether or not you agree with Rob Port's criticism of the city of Minot. It's about how Minot is treating its employees.
An unfortunate side effect of my criticism has been a sort of witch hunt in city government, with Barry looking to find out who the "Port leaker" is.
Which is to say, the city employees who may or may not be speaking to me about perceived problems in city government.
Afraid of retribution
In those columns, I've mentioned speaking with city employees who are critical of Barry's leadership.
I also mentioned to Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma, during a meeting at a downtown Minot restaurant requested by him, that some city employees don't feel comfortable speaking to him of the problems they have with Barry because the two are perceived as close.
Sipma has performed on-stage with Barry's band at a local bar, something Sipma himself confirmed to me, and pictures of the two attending the North Dakota State Fair together are circulated by city employees.
City workers are afraid Sipma will side with his friend, and that criticism will earn them retribution.
They were right to feel that way. At least about the retribution, it seems.
"In response to allegations about possible violations of city of Minot personnel policies, several staff were asked questions on Dec 9, 2019, regarding their knowledge about such possible violations," Minot public information officer Derek Hackett confirmed to me in an email.
As I've mentioned, sources at the city tell me this questioning by Barry took place in a police interrogation room, but Hackett puts a different spin on it. "Staff were asked a few questions in a conference/briefing room in the City Hall/Police Department Building," he said, and it's worth noting that in Minot, the police department is in the same structure as city hall.
My sources tell me city employees were brought into the room, one by one, and told they could be fired if they didn't "come clean" on who has been speaking to me.
Hackett, again, has a different spin: "Employees were never told they would be terminated during staff interviews. They were warned that violations of the personnel policies could be grounds for termination."
That seems like a distinction without much difference to me.
Hackett refused to confirm to me the topic of the questioning.
He also turned down an open records request for any recordings made of the interviews, or other documentation of them, citing § 44-04-18.1, subsection 6, of the North Dakota Century Code which states records related to "employee misconduct" are "exempt until the investigation of the complaint is complete, but no longer than seventy-five calendar days from the date of the complaint."
Asked which city policies these employees are supposedly guilty of transgressing, Hackett referred to sections 6, 7, and 11 of the city's personnel manual.
Those sections deal with disciplinary actions and separations of employment, grievance procedures, and the employee code of conduct, respectively (you can read the manual here).
Mayor Sipma did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
'There's something very Soviet-style about that'
"If you go to work all the time looking over your shoulder, you're not going to give your all," North Dakota United President Nick Archuletta told me when I described this situation to him. His organization is a union made up of public workers and teachers.
He says what's going on in Minot is "not good."
"There's something very Soviet-style about that," he said.
His advice for workers who find themselves in a situation like Minot's public employees is to document everything that happens, to refuse consent to questioning without a representative such as a lawyer or someone from an organization like NDU present, and to join the NDU.
"The question of whether it's a violation of the First Amendment right is up in the air, but it's really bad policy to discourage discourse between public officials and the media whatever the level of public official," Jack McDonald, a lawyer for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, told me.
"I know the other side of the coin is 'we want to speak with one voice on public policy,'" he continued, "but it's not really necessary to bar people speaking to speak with one voice. I think it's a legitimate process to bring concerns to the media about how a government entity is operating. They have a right to complain about how things are going. I think it's bad public policy to retaliate against them for doing that. It's usually counterproductive too because it results in bad press. If you're trying to keep a good image for whatever agency or bureau you're working for, it's going to come back and bite you in the butt."
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.