FARGO — The city of Fargo has fired Finance Director Terri Gayhart after the city’s internal investigation uncovered allegations such as name-calling and gender bias that had employees “dreading” coming into work each day.
Fargo Chief Communications Officer Gregg Schildberger confirmed in an email to The Forum that the city terminated Gayhart’s employment on Wednesday, May 17.
Gayhart was put
on paid administrative leave
on March 31 by Fargo City Administrator Michael Redlinger, according to city records. An internal investigation then began into “reports of a toxic work environment within the finance department, as well as deficient performance as the finance director,” Redlinger wrote in the March letter.
The 41-page report from the city of Fargo released late Thursday night, May 18, found among other things that Gayhart lacked core leadership competencies, failed to support the finance team as a leader of the department and has a pattern of alienating and avoiding certain individual team members with whom she had conflict. Those team members were all female staffers, the report noted.
Complications with Gayhart, who was hired in May 2022, ranged from concerns over the work environment, leadership and communication. The city’s investigation was headed by Redlinger, Director of Human Resources Jill Minette, Assistant Director of Human Resources Beth Wiegman and Human Resources Manager Camila Van Dyke.
Team members interviewed in the investigation paint a picture of a director who often displayed disrespect.
Finance Manager Jamie Bullock attributed her decision to leave the City of Fargo to Gayhart’s leadership and lack of professionalism. Others said she preferred input of male members of staff over their female counterparts, and preferentially assigned work to her “favorites.”
On several occasions staff reported her behavior to be “threatening,” adding that she stood over people while upset and addressed them in a raised voice. Some team members said they witnessed Gayhart “banging her fists on a table or desk, when speaking to them.”
Gayhart in the report said most of the work environment concerns stemmed from her “feeling threatened” by one of her female employees, a finance manager. Gayhart said she didn’t enjoy working with her because of her “wailing on me and getting all upset.”
She noted that she did not remember ever pounding her fists on the desk.
Team members described Gayhart’s leadership style as “my way or the highway,” according to the report. Staff found Gayhart to be unprofessional, unaware of many of the goings on within her department and resistant to the input of others.
She was constantly negative, staffers report, and never had a good thing to say about the work they were doing.
Gayhart said her door was always open to those who wanted to talk. As a leader, she always listens to her employees’ ideas and concerns, she added, but felt discouraged from seeking that input out when a staff member told her that she was “talking too much and wasting everyone’s time” while she was attempting to have a “friendly conversation.”
Staff members noted that she skipped multiple meetings that the finance director has historically attended. Redlinger added in the report that he recently observed her show up 40 minutes late to a virtual meeting.
City staffers alleged numerous occasions of name-calling and that Gayhart “called individuals by inappropriate names,” including “dumb, cruddy, or worthless.” She called a city commissioner “dumb” and routinely pronounced Commissioner Dave Piepkorn’s name incorrectly, staffers said in the report.
Staff members also said Gayhart used terms such as “honey” and “sweetheart” in a condescending way to talk down to team members.
Additionally, she made a habit of not responding to emails, according to the report.
Gayhart acknowledges that while she tries to keep up with her inbox, she is not perfect and things get lost. She suggested ways in which that could be addressed.
She was “confused” about the correct pronunciation of Piepkorn’s name, she said, but didn’t remember the other events occurring.
While she does use “honey” and “sweetheart” in conversation, she added, she has never intended that to be interpreted as condescending.
While the city’s findings report Gayhart was an experienced finance professional and had strong technical knowledge and experience in government accounting, she failed at critical junctures, according to the report.
Gayhart was not truthful on her application material, specifically the due diligence form, the report said. She failed to disclose she had been placed on a performance improvement plan and had issues related to conflicts with staff she supervised while working for her former employers, the city’s findings said.
The city found Gayhart also lacked core leadership competencies and failed to engage with staff as a new director in order to develop professional relationships. Her inability to support the finance team as the leader of the department was evidenced by the lack of interaction with specific team members with whom she had conflict, the report said.
The findings added that Gayhart failed to make significant or sustainable improvements after performance discussions with both city administration and human resources.
As a result, she violated the city’s employment policy regarding conduct and ethics by “failing to treat members of the finance department respectfully.”
Murmurs of concern from within the finance team began to arise a mere month after the city hired Gayhart.
In December, Bullock quit after 15 years on the job, pointing the finger at Gayhart as her sole reason for leaving during her exit interview.
“I’ve found myself comparing Terri to a dictator,” Bullock said in her exit interview. “In the end, I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this place to get the experience that I have. I find my experience to be unwelcomed and unappreciated. It was a hard decision but someone like her does not deserve someone like me and everyone else in the Finance Office.”
Redlinger and Minette met with Gayhart twice in February for performance coaching after more finance staffers reported performance issues to senior city staffers.
Despite that coaching, she “failed to make significant or sustainable improvements,” the city said.
Three whistleblowers from within the finance department formally brought their concerns about Gayhart’s leadership to light on March 10. All had previously discussed some of the issues they were having with human resources.
Following that meeting, city leaders met several times to determine an appropriate course of action.
Gayhart was placed on administrative leave on March 31 by Redlinger and remained on leave while the city investigated claims of toxic work behavior, poor performance and flawed leadership.
Forum exposé uncovered that Gayhart has a documented history of controversy at many of her former positions, as far back as 2013
Gayhart never disclosed any of her formal professional troubles during her interview, said the city, which it sees as a failure to disclose. She responded that, while she didn’t disclose it, a person’s employment history often doesn’t paint an accurate picture.
Gayhart replaced retiring Fargo finance director Kent Costin in May 2022, starting with an annual salary of $169,215.
“She lacks core leadership competencies and communication skills necessary to be a successful leader and to meet the expectations of a (City of Fargo) leader,” the city wrote.