Wharton files grievance against the park district

Former Minot Park District horticulturalist Steve Wharton said Friday he has filed a grievance with the park district over his July 15 dismissal.

Wharton, who is represented by Mark Larson and Melissa Leathers of the Larson Law Firm, alleges that the park district conducted two executive sessions earlier this summer and made decisions with regard to his firing in secret and out of the public eye.

Wharton claims that he was targeted for firing after he went to park district executive director Ron Merritt in April and informed him that one of Wharton’s employees claimed she was being sexually harassed by a supervisor. Wharton said he was required to check out the claim and to file the sexual harassment complaint under state and federal law and according to the park board procedural manual.

Soon after he filed the complaint, Wharton said park district officials began looking for reasons to fire him.

“I contend that this termination was wrong and unlawful and what they did was wrong,” said Wharton on Friday. “… To me, it looks like retaliation for reporting (the complaint) and doing my job.”

Wharton also alleges that the park district did not properly investigate the sexual harassment claim against the supervisor, whom Wharton said remains employed by the park district.

“All of the meetings with respect to this matter were conducted in secret executive session,” said Wharton. He believes the meetings were illegally held and violated the state’s open meetings law.

The Minot Park Board voted to dismiss Wharton at a regularly scheduled park board meeting held July 15.

Connie Feist, president of the park board, began the meeting by informing a large gathering that the board would meet in executive session for the purpose of consulting an attorney on a personnel issue. Approximately 40 minutes later the doors were opened to the room.

A motion was made, seconded and passed to terminate Wharton immediately. Only Park Board member Chuck Emergy voted against Wharton’s termination.

Wharton had been placed on paid leave during a park board meeting held June 17 pending a review of his job performance.

Wharton said Friday that he was never informed of the meetings held by the park board to discuss his job performance and that he was not given an opportunity to address the criticism against him regarding ground maintenance in the city parks or other issues that were raised.

Wharton said he is requesting that the park district reverse its decision to fire him and that he be reinstated to his position as director of horticulture for the park district.

On Friday, Merritt referred The Minot Daily News to the park district’s attorney, Randall Bakke, for comment.

Bakke, of the Smith Bakke Law Firm in Bismarck, said in an e-mail that Wharton’s claims are “categorically denied by the Minot Park District. As you are likely aware Mr. Wharton was terminated by the Minot Park District for failing to properly perform his job duties. Mr. Wharton was terminated for reasons totally unrelated to the assertions now being made by his attorneys.”

Wharton’s lawyer, Larson, did not immediately return a call from The Minot Daily News on Friday.