Reitan: An open letter to the community of West Fargo
On Jan. 13, following an executive session of the West Fargo City Commission, Mayor Mattern stepped before the media and announced I had been placed on administrative leave and that I would not be back in my position as Chief of Police for the City of West Fargo.
That evening and the next day, the attention grabbing headlines of the local paper and the chatter of television and radio stations was not easy to miss. The newspaper article listed a multitude of allegations. Each allegation listed was reported as having been said by an officer. The structure of the article made me assume it was many individual officers. Upon obtaining the non-redacted version of the statements from a media source I found the number of employees to only be three. I also learned the information was being gathered beginning back in August of 2016.
As I read through the allegations I recognized some truths. I do raise my voice at times when I speak. I do use my finger to strike the table to avoid pointing at a person. When upset, I hold what I am about to say for a moment to make sure what I say is appropriate. I have made comments in what I thought to be the safe environment of a private setting with other administrators that would not be acceptable in public or in front of the staff. At times, I do isolate myself within my office. I am stoic in appearance and present a military bearing because the military was part of my life for 33 years. I do display my emotions. I accept the fact I have made mistakes and I am responsible for my actions.
Some of the allegations in the statement troubled me greatly as I read through the list. I have not threatened the safety or security of an employee under any circumstance. Within the constraints of the budget and other available funding sources I have been able to hire necessary staff; to purchase safety equipment; and to secure training to keep the officers protected and prepared for whatever may confront them. I have exerted my best effort to be fair and impartial in discipline, evaluations, praise and promotions. I have employed tactics to open communications through one on one interviews with each of the employees and regularly scheduled meetings with specific groups of staff. On Jan. 21, I provided my written responses of the allegations by email to the members of the city commission.
I later learned the city planned to conduct its own internal investigation into the allegations. Between Jan. 23 and Jan. 30 City of West Fargo Human Resources Specialist Jenna Wilm interviewed members of the police department and a select number of other city department staff members. West Fargo City Administrator Tina Fisk sat in the interviews as an observer. I was not interviewed as part of the internal investigation or allowed access to the statements to provide additional information.
On Feb. 3 at 4:27 p.m. I received an email with notice of hearing set for Feb. 6. Accompanying the notice was a recommendation for termination prepared by Jenna Wilm. I reviewed the allegations outlined and prepared my written statement over the weekend. I asked for a copy of the individual written statements under the North Dakota Open Records Law, receiving the documents by email on Jan. 6. The statements contained information essentially the same as what was first provided in August 2016 with some of the January information dating back to 1989. The statements also contained comments that would be considered hearsay and questionable accusations. It puzzles me how information dating back years has any significance at this time when it had no effect on my promotion to patrol sergeant, captain, assistant chief or chief. If there was truly an issue there could have been a conversation anywhere along the way. I could have been allowed to address any concern there may have been.
At the Feb. 6 hearing City Attorney John Shockley started the hearing with the statement that judicial rules do not apply to the hearing. The city of West Fargo presented its case with a recommendation of termination. I was allowed to present my information. The commission, with a simple motion and a majority vote, terminated my appointment. Sadly, this entire process could have been avoided by the commission using that simple motion and majority vote to remove me.
Under West Fargo city ordinance, any appointive officer may be removed and terminated without cause by a majority vote of all members of the Board of City Commissioners. A simple motion and a majority vote could have removed me without cause and avoided the turmoil that has been generated over the past month. The city chose to go the alternate route of placing me on suspension and to conduct an internal administrative investigation.
Chief Arland Rasmussen told me the step between assistant chief and chief would be huge due to the additional responsibilities and having to navigate the political roadmap. And it was. Throw in the construction of a new police station and my suffering personal tragedies in November of 2015 and May of 2016 it has been some very trying times. Being distracted with the commotion and the many commitments as chief does cut into the important part of daily touching base with each employee.
The past month has been very difficult for my family and our friends. It has undoubtedly been equally as difficult for the staff of the police department and the members of the commission. There were many opportunities along the way to have had a different outcome. I have been asked what I am looking for as an outcome. I wish an outside agency would be asked to conduct an evaluation of the police department to assist in healing and reorganizing. I wish to see transparency within city government so the public may be better informed of the actions of the staff and of spending. West Fargo is no longer small town, decisions need to be made to move us into the future and not remain in the past.
I wish to thank Chief Ken Hansen for having hired me as a patrol officer for the City of West Fargo in 1987. He and Don Jones taught me a number of lessons that I still use today. I thank Chief Arland Rasmussen and the many others who challenged me to do more. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work for and beside some of the most professional people whose sole focus is making our community and our state a better place to live. I am honored to have served the citizens of West Fargo and am grateful for the trust they place in me. And I thank my family who has endured all the pressures and life interruptions the profession of law enforcement presents.
Some leaders state they wish their legacy to be a building or other permanent structure with their name on it. My only wish for my legacy is to have provided a positive experience to someone and somehow that experience made their life better. Thank you and may God bless each of you and provide you his peace.