Often entities of North Dakota’s government, particularly local governments and committees and agencies, hold meetings far from their usual place of business.
I’ve been critical of this practice in the past, such as when a board at North Dakota State University decided to hold an annual meeting in Minneapolis.
How can a meeting of a governing entity be genuinely open if it’s held far away from the public it’s governing?
The City of Minot, which also just happens to be my hometown, has been holding out-of-town retreats regularly. There’s no reasonable justification for them. The location chosen isn’t particularly illuminating. It seems something the city is doing merely to do it.
But there’s an expense to that for the taxpayers. The public servant participants have to travel to the meeting (in Washburn, in this instance, about 70 miles from Minot) and back again. Their time and mileage and other expenses are covered by the taxpayers. Meanwhile, members of the public who might want to attend pay their own way, if it’s even possible for them to make the trip.
I thought this practice violated state open meetings laws, so I filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office about the practice, and they agreed with me.
“[T]he reasons for holding the meeting in Washburn, however sound, do not outweigh the potential inconvenience and expense for Minot citizens whose business it is the Council conducts,” Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote in an opinion released today. “It is therefore my opinion that the retreat of the Minot City Council seventy miles from its jurisdiction was a meeting that was ‘inaccessible’ to the public and therefore violated open meetings law.”
You can read the full opinion below. It also notes that Minot took no steps to facilitate remote viewing of the meeting or to help facilitate attendance for citizens.
This is the right outcome. Too often, people who work in government, when they’re crafting their schedules and agendas, forget who they’re serving. They organize things in a way that’s convenient for them and not the public they’re serving. It’s easy for people who work in government for a living to make the time for a two-hour round-trip to attend a meeting.
It’s not nearly so easy for the public, which must fit their civic duties among those they have to family and career.
If Minot’s leaders had a good reason to hold a meeting out of town, then so be it. I think the law gives them that latitude. In this instance, they didn’t have a good reason.
Here’s the full opinion: