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Port: City of Minot to discuss hiring outside counsel to investigate hostile work environment, city employee described workplace like "GESTAPO"

Minot City Manager Tom Barry
Minot City Manager Tom Barry (Photo via City of Minot)
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MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this week, I wrote about a terrible situation in the city of Minot, which saw the city manager interrogating staff, and threatening them with termination, for allegedly speaking to me.

It seems the message is starting to get through to city leaders.

This afternoon the City Council dropped an agenda for a special meeting to take place Monday, March 9, and on it is one item: Discussion of hiring outside counsel to investigate the hostile work environment at the city.

EMBED: City of Minot Agenda Item

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The agenda refers to an "alleged" hostile working violation, but I think we're beyond the point of allegations. There is a hostile work environment, one so egregious it has drawn statewide attention, and city leaders need to address it quickly.

Documents I obtained and used in my previous column show that City Manager Tom Barry told his employees they could be fired for speaking critically about the city, including criticism of his new employment contract.

He demanded that employees sign, under threat of termination, documents answering questions about whether they had spoken to me or had ever criticized the city.

EMBED: Tom Barry Termination Threat

"Mr. Barry's talking points are heavy-handed, demeaning, and divisive," Nick Archuleta said when I shared Barry's documents with him. Archuleta is the head of North Dakota United, an organization that represents public workers. "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."

I can now reveal more documents I've obtained from the city, illustrating that there are significant problems at the city.

Recently Minot City Assessor Kevin Ternes retired after decades on the job to accolades in local media, but shortly before that departure, he was one of the employees interrogated by Barry.

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In handwritten notes from that meeting, which you can read in full below, Ternes wrote that he told Barry nobody from his department had spoken to me. When Barry asked how he knew this, Ternes quotes himself in his notes, saying, "Because you run this place like the GESTAPO!"

"They are all afraid of you!!"

Later in the notes taken by Ternes, he quotes Barry saying, "I would advise you to watch what you say."

Kevin Ternes Notes 1

In another place in his notes, Ternes describes Barry as "threatening," "a bully," "angry," "paranoid," and "immature."

EMBED: Kevin Ternes Notes 2

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Ternes writes in his note that he believes city of Minot Public Information Officer Derek Hackett recorded the meeting with his phone.

When I asked Hackett for the recording, he denied having made one. "That individual was completely mistaken, and that assumption was incorrect," Hackett told me.

Ternes has not responded to my phone inquiries about the situation at the city. As I've stated before, I haven't spoken to Ternes yet, despite the accusations from Mr. Barry.

If the city chooses to move ahead with an investigation into the work environment at the city, and if that review finds Mr. Barry to be at fault, it could put the city in a tough position.

In early December, the council approved a new five-year contract for Barry worth about $1 million in total compensation. Among its generous provisions is a requirement that Barry be paid a year of his salary if terminated for cause.

One might think that a bad review from outside counsel would give the city all the cause it needs to avoid any contractually obligated golden parachute, but these sorts of employment matters are rarely as simple as that. Barry could choose to litigate, which in turn might cost the city more than a year of his salary would.

Bad hires can be very, very expensive, but it may not come to that.

For now, let's be happy that Minot's leaders are finally paying attention to what has become an atrocious situation.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .


Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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