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Minot City Council removes city manager Tom Barry after hostile workplace investigation

Council removes Barry after hostile workplace investigation

Jill Schramm/MDN Tom Barry speaks to the Minot City Council following termination of his employment as city manager.

The Minot City Council fired City Manager Tom Barry at special meeting, hastily called Monday to discuss the results of an investigation into hostile work environment in the city.

View independent counsel findings here: https://ogden_images.s3.amazonaws.com/www.minotdailynews.com/images/2020/04/21130306/Report-final.pdf

“The findings of the independent outside counsel are damning in my view,” council member Stephan Podrygula said. “There clearly was a hostile work environment with harassment of several employees. Finding number two: there were efforts to conceal this.”

The report from the special counsel, Fargo attorney Patricia Monson, concluded that “there is little, if anything to salvage of the working relationship between the City Manager and many of the department heads he supervises. … The only appropriate resolution of the inhospitable work environment created by the City Manger is his removal from the position of City Manager. A suspension, demotion or reduction of his salary is not practical nor will not have the desired outcome of relieving the workplace of the stress and tension he has created. Termination is the only appropriate solution.”

Monson noted termination comes with a cost. A five-year contract extension granted Barry last December requires Barry to be paid a full year’s salary in event of early termination, unless engaged in embezzlement or other felony. Barry’s 2020 salary was $181,627.

The council had voted March 9 to begin an investigation, in part after Minot blogger Rob Port wrote about concerns among city employees over Barry’s management style.

Monson concluded in the report released Monday: “Forty hours of interviews conducted during this investigation revealed a significant level of distrust existing within upper management at the City. Most of the City’s department heads do not trust the City Manager largely because of his authoritarian management style imposed upon them during his tenure at the City; This has escalated over the last six months.”

“I think it’s clear that there has been a development of a hostile and inhospitable working environment,” council member Paul Pitner said. “I asked myself how does this affect the city’s ability to do things, such as hire and recruit high-level talent to a department head position if we maintain the status quo? What message does it send the legislators that we will need to work with on projects in legislative sessions if we are accepting of this type of a working environment? Lastly, but most importantly, what message does this send to our current staff that have been subject to an environment such as this?

“I keep asking myself, if we can fix this damaged relationship, if we can mend this relationship. However, no matter how many scenarios I run through in my head, I keep coming back to the conclusion that this is not a damaged relationship. But I’m more and more confident that this is a broken relationship, and I don’t know if it can be fixed,” he concluded.

“The report is probably the most distressing thing that I’ve read in all of the total 20 years I’ve served on the council,” Podrygula said.

He noted the report found problems as far back as 2017 with the city manager’s management style and behavior. The report stated the hostility was directed toward a group of several longer term department heads who had formed a social group outside work. Evidence cited in the report indicated Barry felt the group was speaking negatively about his leadership and he sought to stifle those comments. Monson wrote that employee comments would be protected speech under the First Amendment.

According to the report, Council President Mark Jantzer and Mayor Shaun Sipma were alerted to employee concerns last November. In December, the council approved an extension of Barry’s contract to August 2025. Barry’s contract began Dec. 12, 2016, and originally was set to expire Dec. 11, 2019, but had been extended to Aug. 11, 2020.

At Monday’s special meeting, Podrygula moved to ask Barry to resign. The motion passed 7-0, but Barry responded that he would delay a decision for a few days to seek legal counsel. In response, council member Shannon Straight moved to terminate Barry immediately, and that motion also passed 7-0.

The council planned to discuss next steps at a later date. Past practice has had the city’s finance director serve as interim manager when a vacancy existed. The city’s finance director is David Lakefield.

Before individually saying farewell to council members, Barry stepped away gracefully in final words from the podium.

“I just wanted to say thank you for the opportunity that I had to serve you,” he said. “I have appreciated the opportunities to learn and to grow in this position. The challenges have been many and great, as you all know, and we have really done some amazing things, and I know that you will continue that path, and I wish you and the staff, the very best of success in all of your endeavors.”

Initially, however, Barry called Monday’s proceedings “bizarre and rushed.”

“Since my hiring, together we have focused on improving our organization. But at every turn, criticism and resistance has gotten in the way. And yes, we’ve had to make many tough decisions, very unpopular decisions together, because we inherited a great set of challenges that took bold and courageous decision making to better the position of our city and our community. I can understand and I can empathize with those on our team that are unhappy with the decisions we’ve had to make. They have been challenging. They have been difficult. They have been demanding. But I stand before you again, disturbed greatly by the fact that I was never provided the feedback that I’m getting today, nor was I ever provided the opportunity to correct it,” he said.

“I find this all highly suspect and extraordinarily disconcerting,” he added. “Certain members of the council launched an investigation, without any complaints being filed, or let alone coming to me to express any concerns whatsoever.”

Council member Josh Wolsky responded employees have been fearful about coming forward because of the environment that existed.

Council members also raised concern about potential liability if the city did not take action against Barry.

Council member Lisa Olson had proposed putting Barry on leave of absence for 10 days while consulting with the city attorney and doing any other investigation needed. She moved to table the matter for 10 days, which failed 2-5 with only Olson and Sipma voting in favor.

Podrygula said the relationship between Barry and other employees has evaporated, and there’s no way they can work with him.

“I just don’t see him being functional. There’s no way our policies, our directives, can be carried out effectively,” he said.

The city attorney was directed to review the city manager’s contract terms regarding early termination. Barry came to Minot in December 2016 from Meridian, Idaho, where he had been public works director.

Monson also recommended the city adjust its organizational structure to avoid having the city attorney report to the city manager rather than the council. She suggested the human resources director report to the city attorney until matters involving the city manager’s position are resolved. The council took no immediate action on those recommendations.

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