Can A North Dakota Public Meeting Be Truly Open To The Public If It's Held In Minneapolis?

north dakota

I’ve got something to confess. After writing multiple posts in opposition to the idea of closing off the first round of university president applicants to open records request I’ve come around on the issue.

Interim UND President Ed Schafer has given me an earful on the subject. So did Doug Burgum, who schooled me at the end of an interview I conducted with him this week (watch for the results of that interview in the Sunday papers). They said that a lot of our problems in higher education might be solved if we had better leaders, and that starts with getting a big pool of applicants for leadership positions, something inhibited by the open records laws.

Fair enough. It gives me hives to say it, but maybe I’m wrong.

That said, if we’re going to do it for the university presidents, let’s do it for all state hiring. And let’s also tie the reform to other measures to increase accountability at the universities, such as requiring open-to-the-public 360 evaluations of the university presidents which is something the State Board of Higher Education has been resisting.

But there’s another problem with the process. The fact that the face-to-face interviews with the applicants for the president’s job at UND are going to be held out of state in Minneapolis.

“In-person interviews Feb. 1 and 2 will be at a hotel near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a decision made at an earlier meeting based on making air travel easier for candidates,” the Grand Forks Herald reported earlier this week. As you can see from these minutes from a September 2014 meeting of the SBHE, search committees for university personnel are subject to the open meetings/records laws.

Is this being done for the convenience of the applicants? Or to inhibit any reporters or members of the public who might want to attend and observe the meetings?

I have some history with the latter sort of meeting. Back in 2011 I filed an open meetings complaint over the annual meeting of North Dakota State University’s Technology and Research Park. I had been writing about the director of that park at the time, former state Senator Tony Grindberg, doing some crazy stuff like double dipping on his salary and expensing his country club membership, and I was a little shocked that the TRP held their annual meeting in Minneapolis.

How can you have a meeting that is open to the North Dakota public hundreds of miles outside of North Dakota in Minneapolis?

Unfortunately, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem gave them a pass on the meeting. From his opinion:

stenehjemopinion

Basically, Stenehjem found that because the meeting was convenient for the folks at the TRP it was ok that it was hugely inconvenient for any interested member of the public. That was a little galling, I must say.

 

And even Stenehjem writing that out of state public meetings are only OK if they happen infrequently is problematic. It still gives public servants the option to take meetings they don’t want the public observe to some far off location, as long as they only do so infrequently.

Maybe the next time some school board wants giving themselves raises they can meet in Wisconsin.

And now we have this practice wherein the North Dakota University System interviews prospective hires for some of the highest paid positions in the state in Minneapolis (they did this same thing when they were hiring the new chancellor).

This needs to stop. North Dakota business should be done in North Dakota where North Dakotans can show up, observe, and participate when appropriate.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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