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Legislative leader calls for outside interim director to get WSI back on track

FARGO -- Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, who heads a legislative committee reviewing the state's workers' compensation agency, called Wednesday for an outside interim director to restore public confidence in Workforce Safety and Insurance.

Berg said he had spoken to Mark Gjovig, chairman of the WSI board of directors, urging that the agency move swiftly to replace John Halvorson, a longtime manager at the agency now serving as interim chief, to get a fresh perspective.

"I think we need someone who understands management, is fair-minded, has credibility and can make the long-term decisions," Berg said in a Fargo news conference.

Halvorson, through WSI spokesman Mark Armstrong, declined to comment.

Berg, the House majority leader, is chairman of an interim committee of the North Dakota Legislature that is carrying out a wide-ranging review of the agency, including benefits and the claim process, management, premiums, safety and governance.

Rep. Steve Zaiser, D-Fargo, who also serves on the interim committee, agreed that Halvorson should go, but said system changes in laws will be required to return balance to the agency.

"I think in the short term that would be good because the culture inside WSI, it's become a culture of corruption," Zaiser said.

In a statement, Gjovig said the board welcomed Berg's ideas and suggestions, but would wait to hear reports from outside consultants reviewing management practices and the claims process before taking any action.

"Before deciding what course we will ultimately undertake in any of those areas, the board would first like to listen to the consultants' recommendations, analyze their audits and decide what is best for the organization," Gjovig said.

Berg also sent an e-mail to all staff at WSI, inviting them to attend his committee hearing Wednesday to provide input.

Once again, Berg urged injured workers to attend the interim committee's hearings Wednesday and Thursday in the multipurpose room of Workforce Safety and Insurance, 1600 E. Boulevard Ave., Bismarck.

In another development Wednesday, a Fargo lawyer who represents injured workers questioned Berg's sincerity in examining the agency, saying his motivations were aimed more at political posturing than genuine reform.

"Rick Berg has the dubious distinction of being the person most responsible for the train wreck that has become WSI," lawyer Mark Schneider wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to the North Dakota Legislative Council. Schneider said Berg had pushed many of the laws at WSI now under attack.

"There's been a lot of rhetoric on this issue," Berg said. "I would welcome Mark's input."

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.