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FM planning leader kills self day after learning he could be fired

Bill Christian, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments, died by suicide Oct. 17, a day after being put on leave from his job.

FARGO — The leader of the government agency that steers most of the large transportation projects in the metro area died by suicide a day after learning he could be fired over concerns about sexual harassment, his honesty and overall job performance, according to documents obtained by The Forum.

William "Bill" Christian, 58, was the executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments, known as Metro COG. It is governed by a board of mostly elected officials from throughout the metro area and uses public funds to guide transportation projects across government jurisdictions.

Christian died Oct. 17 at his Moorhead home.

Christian's personnel file and related emails, released as a result of a public records request, shed some light on the months and weeks prior to his death.

Last spring, he received a formal written warning after members of the Metro COG Policy Board found he had violated the agency's sexual harassment policy.

According to the warning, when a female employee made a work-related suggestion in front of Christian and another male employee, Christian replied, "See, she's not just a pretty face. She has brains, too."

A few months later, Christian was the subject of a complaint letter from a different employee.

"He has created a toxic work environment for me," the male staff member wrote in an email.

During a regular monthly meeting of the Metro COG board, held two days after Christian's death, Chairwoman Brenda Elmer, a Moorhead City Council member, laid out the recent timeline.

She said the board's executive committee met with Christian Oct. 16 about concerns raised by staff and told him he was being put on paid administrative leave. A document received later by The Forum showed Christian also found out that day the executive committee recommended his firing.

The next afternoon, Christian was dead from what Moorhead police say was an apparent suicide, with no foul play suspected. According to an emergency dispatch log, police were summoned to his home regarding a male who had shot himself.

"Nobody could foresee what happened," Elmer said, describing the scenario to a somber Metro COG board.

Elmer has since declined a request for an interview about Christian's employment history, saying she will not comment on employee personnel matters. She did, however, answer questions via email related to Metro COG policies and actions.

Other employees in the Metro COG office either declined The Forum's request for an interview or didn't respond to the request.

Influential agency

Metro COG wields great power over transportation policy in the Fargo-Moorhead area. It's made up of representatives from local governments and transportation groups. And it's where many inter-jurisdictional projects get their start.

The organization can make requests on behalf of local entities to legislative bodies and transportation departments in North Dakota and Minnesota, and to the federal government.

It has a staff of five and a board with 16 voting members, including delegates from Fargo, West Fargo, Horace and Cass County in North Dakota, along with Moorhead, Dilworth and Clay County in Minnesota.

Christian was first hired at Metro COG in January 2014 as a senior transportation planner after working at similar jobs in Kansas and Nebraska. At the end of a six-month probation period, he was described as doing "satisfactory" work, according to personnel records.

In November 2014, Christian was tapped to lead the agency.

'I felt objectified'

In a performance review in May 2015, Christian received all "successful" marks as executive director.

But the luster faded by the end of 2016, when his annual review brought an overall rating of "needs improvement" and he was denied a step increase in salary.

One person providing input to a later review conducted in January 2017 described Christian as "responsive, knowledgeable," along with "proactive and professional at all times."

However, several entities indicated some Metro COG work products had been "subpar" under him, and though it may not have been Christian's work, they said he was responsible for quality control and "this is on him."

In addition, that review stated Christian needed to communicate better and "should implement sensitivity training for him and his entire staff, including sexual harassment training."

The woman on the receiving end of the "pretty face" comment said she was stunned by what she heard that day.

"I felt objectified, degraded and worthless as an employee," she wrote in a statement that was submitted to board Chairwoman Elmer.

This led to Christian's formal warning, and he was referred to a local agency for counseling.

Honesty called into question

In its recommendation that Christian be fired, the Metro COG executive committee also listed concerns that "brought into question Bill's honesty and trustworthiness to the employees, the Policy Board and local jurisdictions."

Metro COG documents said Christian had his staff write invoices to local jurisdictions for the budgeted rather than actual amount, even if the actual amount was lower.

When a staff member asked about the practice, Christian reportedly said, "The jurisdiction already budgeted that amount. It's understood we get to keep any extra," according to the documents.

The executive committee acknowledged that practice meant higher costs for local jurisdictions and the taxpayers who fund them.

Elmer said although Metro COG doesn't have a formal written policy regarding invoicing, Christian's approach didn't jibe with what's expected.

"The past practice and Policy Board understanding was that member entities would be invoiced for actual costs, not the budgeted amount," Elmer said in a statement.

Elmer said the amount in question is likely less than a few hundred dollars, and while it hasn't been determined where the excess funds went, it's believed they were transferred to Metro COG's general fund.

"The board had no reason to believe that Bill personally took any funding," Elmer wrote.

Also cited in the termination recommendation was that Christian had instructed a staff member to take full credit for a project completed by another employee.

He also refrained from telling that employee where a meeting was being held and what was being discussed to keep others from knowing the employee was involved in the project.

Second-in-charge steps in

According to his obituary, Christian grew up in Indiana and attended college there and in Nebraska. He was in the U.S. Air Force from 1983 to 1987, and worked in Omaha, Nebraska, and Wichita, Kansas, before coming to Fargo.

He's survived by his wife Judy and two daughters, along with other family members. His wife turned down The Forum's request for an interview.

One week after Christian's death, a gathering was held at a Moorhead funeral home, and his funeral was held a few days later in Omaha.

Chairwoman Elmer said the executive committee approved paying out Christian's accrued sick leave and vacation time, money that was added to his last paycheck.

Senior transportation planner Michael Maddox has been tapped as interim executive director at Metro COG. A proposed timeline for hiring a new director will be presented at a future board meeting.

BILL CHRISTIAN TIMELINE:

Jan. 2014 Hired as Metro COG's senior transportation planner.

Nov. 2014 Promoted to Metro COG executive director.

May 2015 Received all "successful" marks during a performance review.

Jan. 2017 Received an overall rating of "needs improvement" during 2016 annual review. Instructed to implement sensitivity training for himself and staff.

May 1, 2017 Told a male employee, regarding a female employee nearby, "See, she's not just a pretty face. She has brains, too."

May 18, 2017 Instructed a staff member to take full credit for a project completed by another employee.

May 31, 2017 Given a formal written warning after Metro COG board members found that he violated the agency's sexual harassment policy.

June 2017 Instructed by board Chairwoman Brenda Elmer and a human resources representative to stop making inappropriate comments.

July 25, 2017 Subject of a complaint letter, which said he had created a "toxic work environment."

Oct. 16, 2017 Placed on paid administrative leave by Metro COG's executive committee, which also recommended he be fired.

Oct. 17, 2017 Died by suicide in his Moorhead home.

Source: Metro COG documents

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