N.D. AG issues opinion on SBHE meetings

By Bryan Cohen | May 6, 2013

BISMARCK, N.D. (Legal Newsline) - North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announced an opinion Friday to the State Board of Higher Education related to alleged violations of the open meetings law.

North Dakota's open meeting and notice laws allow the public to see how government decisions are made and how public funds are spent. Officials of the State Board of Higher Education allegedly engaged in two meetings and a series of e-mails that violated the open meeting and notice laws by failing to province notice about the meetings and failing to take necessary minutes.

"I will not tolerate the circumvention of the open meetings law due to actual or feigned ignorance of the law," Stenehjem said. "In the context of the open records law, I have explained that every state official and the employees of any public entity should know what records are subject to the open records law. Likewise, it is the duty of the members of a governing body to know the requirements of the open meetings law and whether a discussion falls within its scope. Thus, when faced with a situation where a quorum is present in an otherwise social setting, it is the responsibility of each member of the governing body to keep the conversation from turning to public business."

On March 6, a quorum of SBHE members gathered during a purportedly social dinner, but allegedly discussed public business in the private setting. Members of the SBHE also allegedly discussed public matters over numerous private e-mails and during a private meeting on February 26.

Stenehjem said the SBHE must create detailed minutes from the March 6 meeting and the February 26 meeting and turn the written recollections into open records. The SBHE must also undergo training to avoid future open meeting law violations.

"The SBHE must contact this office to set up a comprehensive training seminar to be conducted in conjunction with my office which every member must attend," Stenehjem said. "This seminar must be completed within the next two months, unless otherwise agreed to by this office."

If the SBHE fails to take the recommended corrective actions within seven days of Stenehjem's opinion, the SBHE will need to pay mandatory costs, disbursements and reasonable attorney fees if the person requesting the opinion prevails in a civil action. The matter could also result in personal liability for the people responsible for the alleged noncompliance.


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