MINOT, N.D. — In late January, I wrote what ended up being a widely-shared column about a group of city of Minot employees who were told they could be terminated for speaking critically of city leadership.
At the time, I was able to report that the employees had been led to an interrogation room and told they could be fired if they had communicated with me.
What I wasn't able to get my hands on were any of the documents related to this situation. The city denied my records request for them, citing a statute exempting records relating to employee misconduct.
Fortunately, that statute has a built-in timeline. The exemption only lasts for 75 days. It recently expired, and I renewed my request for the documents.
What I found was shocking — a portrait of an angry, paranoid, out-of-control government leader.
City Manager Tom Barry prepared a document titled "talking points" for this confrontation of his employees.
He also required that the employees answer a questionnaire related to any interactions they may have had with me.
Chillingly, in these documents, Barry repeatedly uses law enforcement terminology such as "probable cause" and "investigation."
City spokesman Derek Hackett denied that the employees were questioned in a police interrogation room (Minot's police department shares part of city hall), but it's not hard to see why the employees might have felt like they were on an episode of "Law & Order."
In his talking points, Barry accuses his staff members of "backstabbing." He suggests, in an enumerated list of perceived horribles, that my work "tarnished the reputation" of the city and "caused staff to question the veracity of their leaders."
You can read all of Barry's talking points in the PDF embedded below.
Also included are the questionnaires staff members were required to sign under threat of termination.
While Barry references multiple articles I wrote, the document the staff was required to fill out and sign lists as "probable cause" a column I wrote about the city council approving his new five-year contract.
That agreement is worth about $1 million in total compensation and came with an automatic renewal clause and a golden parachute of one year pay should Barry get canned.
I felt this contract was ludicrously generous for someone of Barry's modest accomplishments, and its approval process was on far too abrupt a timeline.
The document suggests I "defamed" the city various of its officials. It asks employees whether they have ever spoken to me. It includes this line: "If it comes to light that you have not been truthful or forthright in this investigation or that you have otherwise in any way obstructed this investigation, you may be subject to discipline up to and including termination."
Barry's talking point also included this termination threat:
Here's an excerpt from one of the forms filled out by the city employees targeted:
I should note at this juncture that I talk with a lot of people who work in government. Often they speak to me off the record and without authorization. I don't use anonymous sources a lot in my published work, but in the background, I do have a lot of sources who point me in the direction of useful information.
The sort of work I do would be impossible without those people.
I am not in the habit of saying, one way or another, whether I've spoken to someone. I'd rather not allow the people who do talk to me to be identified through a process of elimination.
But this is a unique circumstance, and I feel terrible that these city of Minot employees — Dan Jonasson, Lance Meyer, Kevin Ternes, Kelly Hendershot, Lisa Jundt, John Zakian, David Lakefield, Rick Feltner, and Tami Stroklund — were subjected to Mr. Barry's paranoia for something they didn't do.
I've never spoken with any of them. Certainly not concerning anything I've published about the city of Minot or Mr. Barry. I've lived in Minot for nearly 30 years, so I can't rule out that I may have interacted with some of these people one way or another in the past as a citizen, but it's not something I remember.
I want to say explicitly that — despite the hand-written note at the bottom of their forms suggesting there is "probable cause for further investigate this individual" — I have never spoken to Kevin Ternes or David Lakefield.
The story about Mr. Barry's contract, despite his paranoia, started with my noticing its late addition to an agenda for a city council meeting that was published publicly. The criticism of that contract, which many agreed with, was my own.
I have, at times, received word both directly and indirectly from city employees who are dissatisfied with Mr. Barry's leadership. Some city employees have also told me that they consider Mr. Barry, and Mayor Shaun Sipma, to be too friendly, something which makes them fear to go to Sipma with their concerns.
I had related that concern to Sipma — who is, ironically enough, a former broadcast journalist — during a sit-down meeting he requested, thinking in good faith that it was something he'd want to know.
It is deeply troubling to me that these employees were interrogated after that conversation.
Instead of taking the concerns to heart, it seems Barry decided to go on a witchhunt.
I shared Barry's talking points with Nick Archuletta, who is the head of North Dakota United, a labor union representing public workers.
"Mr. Barry's talking points are heavy-handed, demeaning, and divisive," Archuletta told me. "They do nothing to facilitate understanding or impart goodwill. Most importantly, though, is that these talking points lack any indication that he is taking even a modicum of responsibility for the state of his relationship with Minot city employees."
That sounds about right to me.
Is this how public employees deserve to be treated?
If anyone has "tarnished the reputation" of the city of Minot, it's Mr. Barry.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.