Despite Controversy City of Minot Approves Roughly $1 Million Contract for City Manager

Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma, left, and City Manager Tom Barry, right Photo via City of Minot

After initially trying to slip it through as a last-minute addition to the agenda, the Minot City Council approved this week a new contract for controversial City Manager Tom Barry.

The Council also approved a substantial pay raise for themselves, though I think that move was sorely needed. “If we devalue public service by not paying people who are in public service adequately – not exorbitantly but adequately, what the market says the compensation is – I think that is making a statement about government and that’s not a statement I want to make,” Stephan Podrygula, a member of the council, said during discussion of the issue.

That’s exactly right.

Barry’s contract, unfortunately, is another matter.

It’s a five-year contract – which automatically renews for another five years unless the city terminates it with a year’s notice – worth about $1 million once you calculate in Barry’s salary and other benefits.

Or $2 million, I suppose, if you count the automatic renewal. Which might not be an unreasonable level of compensation for a city manager. It’s just a big commitment worthy of more scrutiny than the council members were set to give it before I wrote about it.

It can seem as though the only people really paying attention to what Minot’s city government is doing are a few cranky gadflies who are prolific with social media posts and letters to the editor.

Mayor Shaun Sipma reached out to me for a sit-down after my initial post on this issue. He wanted to understand my criticism of Barry, and what I told him is that it wasn’t necessarily just my criticism.

I’ve heard from city employees who have difficulties working with Barry. In fact, a couple of city employees were among those who alerted me to the initial last-minute addition of Barry’s contract renewal to the council’s agenda last month. Usually, these employees would feel like they could go to their mayor with their problems, but it’s widely known that Barry and Sipma are buddies. They went to the North Dakota State Fair together. Barry has a band, and Sipma has been known to go on stage and sing with them.

If you’re a city employee, can you feel comfortable having a hard conversation with the mayor about his good friend, the city manager? Or do you keep your mouth shut?

The city employees I’ve spoken to are choosing the latter.

And it’s not just city employees who have difficulties with Barry. One state lawmaker from the area described Barry to me as a “headache.” A member of another local governing body described Barry as “difficult to work with.” Even Sipma himself agreed with me, during our lunch at Charlie’s downtown, when I described Barry as “polarizing.”

Minot is a badly fractured community. Poor leadership – mostly from those who preceded our current crop of leaders – has severely damaged the public’s trust in their city government.

Sipma and his fellow elected leaders have the thankless job of trying to dig out of that hole. Worse, they’re stuck doing it in a city where the citizens have grown cynical and apathetic about local government. It can seem as though the only people really paying attention to what Minot’s city government is doing are a few cranky gadflies who are prolific with social media posts and letters to the editor.

But I’m not sure any of that excuses Sipma and the city council throwing their support behind a city manager who is worsening the city’s relationships with important factions of the public, not to mention other state and local governing entities.

I voted for Sipma in his last election. I think he has it in him to do Minot a lot of good. I wish he, and some of his fellow council members, would lead instead of giving Barry, who was not elected by anybody, a free rein.

This, from the Minot Daily, is how Sipma and fellow council member Paul Pitner reacted to the criticism of Barry’s contract:

Sipma also addressed community conversations started by a local blogger regarding the last-minute addition of the contract to the agenda of the Nov. 18 meeting, where it was tabled.

“I find it a tad bit disingenuous, as 14 of the 22 agendas prior to this have also been amended on a Friday before a regular meeting that is held on a Monday,” he said. “It was added after the Wednesday deadline as we were waiting on the legal verification for some of the contract that was being proposed.”

Regarding the contract terms, Sipma said it is in line with other North Dakota communities.

“The reason I am going extensively into this is because there has been, I would say, some unnecessary blowback towards what is normally a very simplistic process, and had been for the better part of 20 years with former city manager Waind and former city manager (Lee) Staub,” Sipma said.

Council member Paul Pitner backed Sipma.

“It’s embarrassing that our community can attack such an asset that we have in City Manager Barry,” he said. “You pay somebody what they’re worth.”

There may well be somebody worth the contract the council approved, but that person isn’t Tom Barry.

Anyway, with attitudes like that on display from our elected leaders, I think we can expect the civic rancor which permeates Minot to continue.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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