Minot City Council to investigate ‘hostile environment’ allegations

City tackles ‘hostile environment’ allegations

Jill Schramm/MDN Minot City Council member Shannon Straight, right, and other council members on Monday tour the former Wells Fargo building with its escalator on the main floor near the entry doors. The council also toured the nearby M Building. Both buidings are under consideration for a new city hall.

The Minot City Council will hire an outside investigator to look into allegations of a hostile work environment in city government.

At a special meeting Monday that preceded tours of downtown buildings being looked at for a new city hall, the council debated for nearly an hour whether hiring an investigator is the right move.

Council member Josh Wolsky offered the motion to hire an attorney to look into allegations, including a review of potential civil, criminal and City of Minot policy violations.

Wolsky said he isn’t suggesting allegations are true, but the council needs to get to the bottom of the circumstances that exist.

“I believe this is the path forward that allows us to do that most effectively, most professionally, and with the best chance of putting this behind us,” he said.

Upon securing an investigating attorney, there will be a special meeting to provide that person direction. Findings will be delivered to the council. Funding will come from the city attorney’s budget for outside legal expertise. Cost is uncertain, although City Attorney Kelly Hendershot said the typical attorney fee in such cases is $300 an hour.

In the city’s employee manual, hostile work environment is defined as an unwelcome conduct, whether verbal, physical, visual or innuendos that are derogatory, abusive, disparaging, bullying, threatening or disrespectful and has the purpose to interfere with an individual’s work performance.

The matter seemed to come to a head for the city after Minot blogger Rob Port wrote about efforts by City Manager Tom Barry to prevent city staff from talking with him. However, council members Stephan Podrygula, Shannon Straight and Wolsky also said they have had employees raise concerns to them. They were joined by council members Paul Pitner and Mark Jantzer in voting for the independent investigation.

“You can’t sweep it under the rug,” Podrygula said. “First, this is a serious situation. Second, the city was or could be, if the allegations were true, in significant legal jeopardy.”

“We ran as trying to instill not just public trust but to elevate the accountability of this seat, and that is why I’m going to support this today. It’s for all of our employees,” Straight said of the investigation. “It is critical that we have outside counsel look at this issue.”

Council member Lisa Olson hesitated to call an investigation without any formal grievances being filed.

“So I don’t exactly know what we’re investigating,” she said. “I think that we are skipping steps along the way.”

Olson, council vice president, proposed setting up a committee with Council President Jantzer, Pitner, who serves on the employee retention and recruitment committee, and herself. Employees could present grievances, including anonymously, to the committee.

“I don’t think that you have to wait until a complaint is filed to do something. In fact, I think if you wait, you get into more trouble,” Podrygula said. “There’s enough floating out there where I think we’re at risk and I think we need somebody outside of the city to tell us what that risk might be and how we might handle it.”

“I have a tough time supporting going out looking for a problem,” Mayor Shaun Sipma said in opposition to hiring an investigator. “I’m very aware that social media has wound this up substantially and taken it from what was an administrative day-to-day operation issue and wound it into something that it truly, truly isn’t.”

However, he supported Olson’s suggestion, saying leaders can’t turn their back on the issue even when there’s a handful of people who have turned a mountain into a molehill.

“I’m not looking for problems,” Podrygula responded. “Things have been brought to our attention. People have said to me, face to face or by other means, that there’s something going on. I am not looking for problems. I want to get to the bottom of this, I want to vindicate people if that’s appropriate. I want to put rumors to rest. I also want improvements in the structure and the organization of the city on how it handles things.”

Council member Paul Pitner said it may be difficult for an employee to come forward if there is a hostile environment because they are concerned about how that would affect their jobs. He voiced regret that employees apparently didn’t feel they could bring their concerns to him as a council member.

Margie Zietz, code enforcement officer with the city, agreed with Pitner.

“We have probably several city employees in this room that the reason why they’re not going through the grievance process is because of what can happen to them,” she said. Referring to the allegations, she added, “I’m involved in a lot of different departments, and I hear a lot of things, and I know these people aren’t just saying it.”

Aaron Moss with the Minot Police Department and president of the local fraternal order of the police urged the council to stick with its process for grievances.

“There is a grievance process. If people are fearful, there’s also an outside, independent means in which to file complaint labor complaints in the state through the Department of Labor and Human Rights,” he said. “If this outside process were to lead to discipline – where there’s no mechanism in place to appeal or due process – then what?”

City finance director David Lakefield, whose position reports to the council directly rather than to the city manager, called on the council to address the issue. He spoke of reaching out to the council president when things became troubling earlier this year.

“I’m in a no-win position here, and I’m a long ways out on the branch here. My concern is for the city, and I think if we are going to move forward and maintain traction, we need to find a way to put this to rest – one way or another,” 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.”

Sipma restricted public comment to city employees, turning away a resident, Cliff Hovda, who wished to speak.


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