Port: On safe airplane landings and bad apples

PHOTO: Minot City Councilman Josh Wolsky
On Monday, March 9, Minot City Councilman Josh Wolsky, pictured, introduced and successfully saw passed a motion to secure outside legal counsel to investigate a hostile work environment in his city's government (YouTube screenshot)

MINOT, N.D. -- On Monday of this week I had a very good day.

The problem is, in this job, my good days are usually someone else's very bad days.

For weeks now, I've been the only person in the state covering the deep-seated problems in Minot.

City Manager Tom Barry has been out of control, lashing out at city employees with bullying and threats of termination , all to find out who might be speaking critically of him to me.

On Monday, city leaders - some trying to write off my work as a "social media wind up" as mayor and Barry loyalist Shaun Sipma put it - finally took action. They voted 5-2 in favor of securing outside counsel to pursue an investigation into whether there is a hostile work environment at the city.


During the hour-long meeting leading up to that decision, some of the council members made some ludicrous if well-intentioned statements. One council member referenced the "purported" documents detailing Barry's mistreatment of his employees as if I hadn't obtained them, by way of an open records request, from the city itself.

A lot of them claimed ignorance about problems in the city, though the documents I obtained have Barry claiming that he was acting against the employees with the full knowledge of the council.

One council member, Stephan Podrygula, wanted to make it clear that he wasn't supporting an investigation because of what some "blogger" had to say.

I suspect, were it not for this "blogger," the city still wouldn't be doing anything about Mr. Barry.

Thankfully, toward the end of the meeting, council members had some of this imagined fog cleared away for them when a couple of city employees got up to tell them the problems at the city are real, and not just the figment of some blogger's imagination.

"We have several city employees in this room that the reason why they are not going through the grievance process is because of what can happen to them, what we see every day when we go to work," long-time Minot employee Margie Zietz told the council, responding to the claim from some of the elected officials that there is no problem because there have been no official complaints filed.


David Lakefield, also a city employee, was visibly nervous when he rose to address the council. "I'm in a no-win position here, and I'm a long ways out on the branch here," he said.

"This is embarrassing to us as a city, and to us as a staff, that we have to be here. But I'm also concerned. The city is in a position of potential liability if we don't address this head-on," he continued.

I should note that Lakefield was one of the employees interrogated by Barry . After he, like other employees, was forced under threat of termination to fill out a questionnaire asking if he'd ever spoken to me, or spoken critically of the city, someone wrote at the bottom that he should get more investigation.

EMBED: City of Minot Handwritten Note

I highlight that to illustrate how much courage Lakefield, specifically, showed on Monday, getting up to speak out in a public hearing as his boss, Barry, staring out at him from his seat next to the mayor.

For me, Monday was a very good day. My job is to use facts and analysis to illuminate issues of politics and government for you readers. At times this can feel a bit like firing spitwads at a brick wall.

Every once in a while, though, you write something really good, and a little bit of change happens, and the impulse is to celebrate it.


For people like Lakefield, or even Barry, things are a bit less fun, and it's a mistake to forget it.

There is a saying in the news media industry, which is that safe airplane landings don't make the news.

You will never read many columns or news reports about all the elected officials pursuing their jobs with integrity, or public workers acting with diligence and competence.

But those things happen, believe it or not. I would argue that they're the norm. Where would we be if it wasn't? You just don't hear much about it.

I spend a lot of time interacting with the government in North Dakota, requesting records, and pursuing information. I can tell you that most people who serve the public in our state are good people who care very deeply about their jobs.

It's the job of people like me to expose the bad apples, but we need to pause now and then to remember that, even though the bad apples are what we hear most about, the rest of the bunch is pretty good.

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

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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