Ag Commission Exit Interviews Complain Of Low Morale

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring is being challenged for the NDGOP endorsement by Farm Bureau-backed Judy Estenson (Goehing is now saying he’ll run to the primary if he doesn’t get the party endorsement). Before Estenson launched her campaign, Goehring admitted in an email to Farm Bureau members that he engaged in some inappropriate behavior around female subordinates. Further investigation showed that Goehring had referred to a group of his female staffers as his “harem” and had invited one female subordinate to his hotel room to crack his back (albeit with a male employee present).

A former director in Goehring’s department, Katie Pinke, has accused Goehring of creating a “hostile work environment” that has inspired many Ag Department employees to depart state employment. The Ag Department employee who was asked to crack Goehring’s back did leave the department, but she’s since returned and according to an exit interview with Tom Bodine she said she had no problem with Goehring (an exit interview with Pinke didn’t mention Goehring at all). According to Bodine’s interview, Wald also said she never wanted her desk moved away from Goehring’s office, which was a claim Pinke had said.

I emailed Wald for comment, but she declined.

In an interview with me, Estenson backed away from the controversy over Goehring’s behavior though wouldn’t say whether or not Goehring should resign.

By way of additional open records requests, I’d discovered some additional facts about this matter.

First, when the employee involved in the back-cracking incident was hired back it was into a new position, and she’s currently making significantly more than before. Over 35% more per month than her previous pay rate. “Kelly Wald was hired in 03/06/2012 her pay grade was a grade eight and her salary of $2850 was in the first quartile of the pay range,” Lindsay Schatz, and administrative officer in the Ag Department, told me in an email. “Kelly Wald was rehired 09/09/2013 with a salary of $3850 which is in the first quartile in a higher pay grade.” According to Schatz, the higher pay “reflects increased complexity in job duties and responsibilities.” She also notes that Wald is making $150 less per month than the person who held that job previously.

Second, as to Pinke’s claim of a “hostile work environment” in the Ag Department, there is some evidence to support that. Since January 1st, 2011, twenty-eight employees have left the Ag Department. Of those, seventeen completed exit interviews (“It’s not mandatory that all employees complete an exit interview,” Schatz told me of the discrepancy. “The majority of the people that did not complete an exit interview retired.”). Of those seventeen, more than half – nine, specifically – rated department morale as “fair” or “poor” (the other two options were “excellent” or “good”).

“I believe more than eight have left the ag department over the last few years,” Pinke told me in a previous interview.  ”I think some of those are retirements, but there’s an underlying factor. It’s all off the record because nobody wants to feel the backlash. I reported it because I had to.”

A common complaint in the exit interviews is communication. In an interview with me yesterday, Goehring blamed the morale on “inter-agency politics.” He also noted that with the “economy booming in North Dakota,” that “retention and recruitment of employees” has been hard.

“People were chatting behind the scenes,” Goehring said, “wanting to do this, wanting to do that. Wanting to push agendas not in the best interest of the department.” He said some of his division directors were engaged in “empire building,” and suggested that some of the blame may have been his.

“Maybe I’m giving too much latitude to some of my division directors,” he said.

Pinke was a former division director in the Ag Department, and when I asked Goehring if she was one of the directors he’s referring to, he said yes. “She was certainly aggressive.”

“I don’t mind that they’re aggressive and they do things,” Goehring said. “But the don’t answer to the legislature and to the people. I do.”

I asked Goehring if he felt his leadership was contributing to the low morale. His blunt answer was, “no.”

Estenson and Goehring will square off at the NDGOP state convention in early April, which will be held in Minot. If one or the other chooses, they can collect signatures to go on the primary ballot in early June.

Update: This post had previously contained an embed of the exit interviewed obtained by open records request from the Ag Department. After I published, Tom Bodine from the department contacted me to say that they had inadvertently included some private information about employees in their response to my records request. I have taken down the records until the Ag Department can provide me with a new set of records with the private information redacted.

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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