FARGO — Cass County and state decision-makers are unsure how much a critical report that revealed widespread problems within the local social services department will factor into hiring a long-term leader for the department, as one of the candidates is at the center of the study.

The Cass County Human Service Zone Board will meet Thursday, Feb. 6, and Friday, Feb. 7, to interview six candidates chosen from a pool of 11 candidates as the board seeks to fill the job of zone director. Candidates' names have not been released, with officials citing North Dakota law that lets government agencies keep applicant files closed until three finalists or more are chosen.

Interim Zone Director Chip Ammerman, who was the Cass County social services director before the state took over the agency, told The Forum he is one of the six who have advanced to the next level.

“I've applied for it, and I have an interview scheduled,” he said Tuesday, Feb. 4.

The interviews come just days after the zone board and Cass County Commission reviewed an independent report that suggested Ammerman may need to be replaced. Many social services employees said they don't believe their toxic work environment will improve, according to the report.

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Commissioner Chad Peterson said the report comes at an awkward time — after social services shifted to state control, making some wonder if the state will make a final decision without considering the report.

To be completely dismissive of the report would be shocking, Peterson said, adding that he's hopeful change will happen. "I would like to believe that people with decision-making authority would go, 'Yikes,'" he said.

Ammerman said he believes the culture in his department has improved in recent months, adding that he was surprised when he first heard there was a lack of trust between the commission and himself.

“Obviously, they don’t believe what I’m saying at this point,” he said. “I thought we had a relatively good working relationship.”

The North Dakota Department of Human Services is aware of the report, which was requested after concerns over unmanageable caseloads arose in the department's child protection unit, and has concerns about its findings, said Sara Stolt, chief operating officer for DHS. But she said DHS needs “more clarification about what is truly a longstanding issue versus an acute issue that maybe is connected to child protective services or their volume.”

The state does not plan to conduct its own investigation, Stolt said. And she said she can’t comment on how the matter would impact the director search.

“That decision is between the zoning board and the representatives from the department who are assisting the zoning board,” she said.

The zone board gets to decide how many, if any, candidates will be named finalists in the search, Stolt said. After scoring the finalists, DHS will work with the board to choose the next director, she said.

“In the end, the state has the final say,” Peterson said.


Past warnings

The county commissioned the independent report after Jennifer Aldinger, a child protection services caseworker, submitted her resignation letter April 11. The letter detailed allegations of a hostile work environment that led to a non-criminal investigation into the unit that found toxic behavior by management.

That prompted the independent review of social services as a whole, which found issues that have gone unsolved for years.

Public records requests by The Forum revealed several warnings from employees about deteriorating conditions. Seven caseworkers penned a June 2018 letter describing how increased caseloads hindered services.

The Forum also requested seven years worth of exit interviews for employees who have left social services — the county destroys such records after seven years. Of the 82 exit interviews, 29 praised management without complaint, and 23 mentioned negative aspects of the job. Others did not state if they liked or disliked working there.

The negative responses dating back to 2013 noted concerns that appeared in the independent study: low morale, heavy caseloads and displeasure with management. One person wrote, “you don’t want to get on Chip’s bad side.”

Ammerman has said some employees are “trouble-makers,” noting the negative exit interviews equal about three per year. He told The Forum he typically doesn’t see exit interviews, and some employees leave after a poor performance.

Peterson said employees may not disclose complaints because they don't want to burn bridges.

Cindy Stoick, the county's human resources director, said she reviews exit interviews and speaks to department heads when red flags show up. She said she didn’t know how serious the problems were until seeing Aldinger’s letter.

County Administrator Robert Wilson said his office wants to be able to trust leaders when they report things are going well in their departments. It’s possible there could be more oversight, but he doesn’t want to micromanage the departments.

What's next?

Cass County is one of the few in North Dakota that will have its own social services zone, where other counties will combine to create regional zones. The process of controlling the zone is a hybrid with a lot of unknowns, Wilson said. There is local leadership and DHS staff on the hiring process committee, he said.

County Commissioner Duane Breitling has previously said it sounded like the state was dictating what the county does, after DHS said it should keep Ammerman on as interim zone director.

Peterson said the state and zone board have acted in good faith as far as trying to work together to find a long-term zone director. He's hopeful the decision to hire a director will be collaborative.

Peterson said he struggles with whether Ammerman should be chosen as the long-term director, but he didn’t rule him out as a successful candidate.

“He has every right to apply,” Peterson said. “If I’m on the hiring board, he’s got a lot of work to do to prove to me that there’s something that’s going to change.”