Last year the City of Minot held a “retreat” in the City of Washburn, a town roughly an hour south along Highway 83.
This “retreat” was also, supposedly, an open meeting at which public business was discuss. Including a hot-button issue related to the city doubling the cost of building permits for people living in the city’s extraterritorial zoning area (people who, as it happens, cannot vote for city leadership).
The city decided to take no action on the building permits, but a citizen who cared about the issue was upset because she says she wasn’t aware of the meeting and couldn’t attend it in Washburn. “How are we supposed to address them when they have meetings we can’t attend? We can’t tell them our concerns. We can’t make suggestions,” Pat Eisenzimmer told the Minot Daily News at the time. “I think it was handled incorrectly.”
The city ultimately got smacked down by state lawmakers on the building permits issue. They passed legislation earlier this year banning the practice.
But for the purposes of this post, let’s focus on the idea of a city government holding an open meeting that citizens would have to embark on a two hour round trip to attend. The politicians and various city staff will all be paid to attend the meeting, and reimbursed for expenses like mileage, but any citizens who might want to attend the meeting have to invest not only the time to get there and back but the money as well.
That’s not really an open meeting.
The City of Minot is holding a retreat in Washburn again this year. It’s a multi-day affair, and per the event details it appears as though attendees will be driving back and forth from Minot to Washburn each day.
Which doesn’t make a lot of sense from an efficiency-of-government perspective. Why are the taxpayers footing the bill for travel back and forth to Washburn when they could just meet in Minot? What’s the point of a “retreat” if you’re not even really, you know, retreating?
And, again, this is hardly an open meeting. Sure, the Minot public can attend the meeting if they travel back and forth to Washburn, but I’m not sure that’s a reasonable expectation to put on citizens who might want to be involved in their local government.
Sadly, this sort of thing is legal. Way back in 2012 I requested an opinion from the Attorney General concerning the legality of a North Dakota State University meeting which was held in Minneapolis (read it below). That was an even more egregious departure from the spirit of state transparency laws than anything the City of Minot is doing, but the Attorney General said it was in keeping with the letter of state law:
I’m a little dubious as to the argument that convenience of attendance for the public servants holding the meeting is somehow more important than the public’s access to said meeting, but whatever. There’s nothing in the law which says they can’t do it, so they do it.
And it’s a not-uncommon practice in North Dakota government. Back when the University of North Dakota was going through the search process that ultimately resulted in the hiring of former President Mark Kennedy they held supposedly “public” meetings in the Minneapolis airport.
This has to stop. The Legislature should require that public entities hold their public meetings in their usual place of business. There can be some exceptions – certain committees or agencies need to be able to hold field meetings, or visit locations – but for the most part the public’s business should be done where the public can participate.
Here’s the 2012 opinion: