Board President Rusty Papachek and the other members of the Fargo Park Board have forgotten who they work for: the taxpaying public. More than a week after his abrupt resignation, we still don’t know why the board chose to reward their executive director, Joel Vettel, with a golden parachute worth more than $100,000.
We also don’t really know what prompted Vettel to resign, although we now have clues.
The little we do know has been pried loose by Forum reporter Dave Olson using North Dakota’s vital open records law, since Vettel and board members have said little to nothing of consequence.
Vettel’s generous severance agreement — $75,000 in salary, plus health and retirement benefits for the rest of the year — included a gag provision in which the parties agreed to not discuss the reasons for Vettel’s departure. Vettel and the board each agreed not to make any disparaging comments about the other, hiding the whole mess in a little black box.
The cozy agreement and the secrecy surrounding it are outrageous.
If this hasn’t been a case of a Good Old Boy’s Club at work, we’d like board members to convince us otherwise. Because make no mistake, Vettel was a member of the club.
A former Fargo police lieutenant, Vettel had served on the park board for 12 years, twice serving as board president, before he was named the park district’s executive director three years ago.
That cordial familiarity undoubtedly made the board’s actions more than a little awkward. But the effort to spare board members and Vettel, their former peer, from any potential embarrassment is inexcusable.
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- Ex-Fargo parks director disciplined for granting 'excessive' vacation leave as job rating plunged
- Severance provides salary, benefits through end of 2019 for Joel Vettel, ex-director of Fargo Park District
It is an abdication of the board’s duty to be transparent to the public who elected them and pays for the park district’s $27 million annual budget. That lack of candor, crucial for maintaining public trust and support for the park system, will only damage the board’s credibility.
Yet from the very beginning the board sought to camouflage and obfuscate.
The notice for the special meeting on July 2, sent hours before the meeting that resulted in Vettel’s resignation, listed the agenda simply as “HR/Staff Review.”
The bland vagueness of that agenda conceals more than it reveals and utterly fails to serve as adequate public notice that the park district’s executive director’s performance was at issue.
Documents The Forum obtained through open records requests show Vettel’s performance reviews had turned sharply from favorable to critical. Board members disapproved of Vettel’s decision to reward employees with paid vacation giveaways, and said he had divided park district management into two camps.
Yet, to avoid the embarrassment of disclosures and to make the problem go away, board members gave Vettel a generous severance package and a separation agreement that muzzled public officials who owe the public an explanation.
There’s a sad irony to all of this. Joel Vettel was exemplary in his role as public information officer for the Fargo Police Department. He was a model of accessibility and openness. Vettel is well regarded for his contributions to the community, and we wish him well in what comes next.
But the public needs to know what’s behind his resignation and how park board members justify his severance. Board members should quickly clear the air or voters could decide it’s time to disband the park board’s Good Old Boy’s Club.