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Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service, Published October 01 2013

Dickinson fires city engineer, plans to contract with firm

DICKINSON, N.D. - A mere six months after starting the position, William Watson was terminated as the Dickinson city engineer on Friday.

“We parted ways,” Dickinson city administrator Shawn Kessel said. “Mr. Watson was a very hard worker — put in a lot of hours for us. But we decided to go our separate ways.”

Watson was doing a good job and was committed to the position, Kessel said.

“It was more about customer service than anything else,” Kessel said.

The last public meeting Watson attended was the Sept. 3 City Commission meeting. He was absent from the Sept. 16 City Commission meeting and the Sept. 18 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

City staff were instructed not to comment on the termination, Community Development Director Ed Courton said. He had come back from vacation to find the city without an engineer.

Watson was terminated from his position as the Alamogordo, N.M. public works director in April 2012.

“We obviously knew about that,” Kessel said. “We also knew there was more to that story — there’s always at least two sides.”

The city researched the issue and felt good about hiring Watson last winter, Kessel said.

“We’re working on a contingency plan to provide for engineering services in the interim here,” City Attorney Matt Kolling said.

The city has been looking for an assistant city engineer since Nathan Peck resigned and had a hard time filling that position, Kessel said.

“We’re actually going to go a different route,” Kessel said. “Hiring engineers in our environment is not easy.”

The city has decided to stop competing with the private market and hire a firm to take over as city engineer.

“Our goal is to hire one firm but have several people apply their efforts to get rid of some of the backload that we have,” Kessel said. “We’ve got a backlog of projects that we really need to get moving on. With the amount of resources that they can apply, it’s going to go very, very quickly.”

The city has been working with private engineering firms for some time to help complete certain parts of the review process, Kessel said. The new system will be an expansion of what’s already in place, though the city recognizes there could be conflicts.

“Any firm that we would hire is more than likely going to have private development work that they’re doing inside the city limits or immediately adjacent,” Kessel said.

The city will have to have a system of checks and balances in place for when a private project the firm has been working on comes up for public review so engineers don’t review the firm’s own work.

The private staff hired to replace Watson will be housed in city hall, with a lead engineer representing the department at meetings and other venues, Kessel said. The engineering department will work for the firm and the firm will work for the city.

“We were very specific that we want a person. We don’t want a revolving door,” Kessel said. “We want consistency so that our customers will receive consistency.”

They city may work for up to a year in partnership with a private firm, Kessel said.

No agreements have been finalized.

Watson does not have a number listed in Dickinson.