MINOT, N.D. — In June of 2013, North Dakota's State Board of Higher Education fired Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.
Then, for the next three years, North Dakota's taxpayers continued to pay him a $349,000-per-year salary plus benefits like retirement contributions.
Shirvani even got his scheduled raises during this time period.
Think about that for a moment.
The man was fired, but not only were taxpayers obligated to keep paying him, he got raises too.
The reason for that absurdity was Shirvani's contract which was agreed to by the very same board that fired him. The State Board of Higher Education made a bad hire but had obligated themselves to that hire so thoroughly that, even when they decided to fire him, the taxpayers had to go on paying him.
I was thinking about the Shirvani debacle while reading news that the City of Minot has decided to pay out disgraced former city manager Tom Barry.
Earlier this year my reporting exposed Barry's erratic behavior and egregious harassment of city employees. At one point, Barry even marched city employees into an interrogation room and threatened them with termination for allegedly speaking to me about problems with Barry's leadership.
After an independent investigation commissioned by the city verified my reporting, the council voted to fire Barry.
But just months before that same council had given Barry a lavish, five-year contract that included a golden parachute which paid out should Barry be terminated.
A contract that, ironically enough, narrowed the scope of what sort of for-cause terminations could release the city of it's obligation to pay.
Under the new terms, negotiated and ram-rodded through a council vote by Barry's close personal friend, Mayor Shaun Spima, nothing short of flat-out embezzlement or self-dealing would obviate the need to pay.
This is why it wasn't surprising that the city council, this week, voted to pay Barry $140,510.55 plus up to $5,000 in attorney's fees.
Barry also has a new job in the region. The folks in Beltrami County, Minnesota, just hired him as county administrator at a salary of $125,757 per year. That's a more than $55,000-per-year pay cut for Barry from the 2020 salary he was receiving from the City of Minot, but I suppose he can take solace in the fact that, thanks to the generous terms of his previous contract, he'll get to double-dip for the next year or so.
The frustration with this situation among some Minot council members was palpable.
"Given the way the original contract was written, I think we’re pretty much stuck paying him with the six months that the original contract said, but my position is and has been that he obtained the furtherance of the contract – the renewal of the contract – through fraudulent circumstances," council member Stephen Podrygula said at the meeting approving Barry's payout. "And I think it would be inappropriate to reward somebody for bad behavior.”
Barry is Beltrami County's problem now.
For the taxpayers of Minot, and the taxpayers of North Dakota, generally, if we consider the Shirvani mess, we have to wonder when we will start holding elected officials accountable for these ridiculously lavish contracts.
Anyone can make a bad hire.
But we often treat the hiring of a bureaucrat like Barry as something akin to signing a star free agent in professional sports. Government entities spend big money on search firms and work up a lather writing rich contracts to lure in what they consider talent. As if the expertise needed to fulfill the governance needs of relatively small communities like Minot were some rare thing.
Are the taxpayers well-served by that process?
I'm not so sure.
Podrygula used the word "fraudulent" to describe Barry's contract.
That sounds like a situation in need of further investigation.
Barry may have got his, but those in Minot's government responsible for enabling that outcome can still be held accountable.
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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.