North Dakota Attorney General Rules In Favor Of Out-Of-State “Open Meetings”
North Dakota’s transparency laws require open records and open meetings. This means that not only does the public have legally-protected access to records and meetings, but that the records and meetings should actually be accessible.
This is an important distinction. If a record is technically open to the public, but is so expensive and arduous to obtain that few in the public have the time or resources to obtain it, then it is not really open. The same with meetings. If they are held in a time, place or fashion that makes it prohibitive for the public to attend then the meeting is not open at all.
It was for this reason that, last year, I filed a complaint against North Dakota State University’s Technology and Research Park, a government-funded “center of excellence.” I have written extensively about this organization, which must obey the state’s transparency laws despite claims from the university that it is somehow a separate and non-government entity, including detailing some worry spending going on including its director, state Senator Tony Grindberg, double-dipping on his salary and charging his country club membership to the TRP.
My complaint was over the TRP’s annual meeting, which was to be held hundreds of miles outside the borders of North Dakota in Minneapolis, coinciding with the NDSU Bison/Minnesota Gophers football game. It was unfathomable to me that such a meeting, held so far outside of North Dakota, could be in compliance with open meetings laws. So filed a complaint with the state, and much to my chagrin Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem disagreed.
You can read the full opinion below, but essentially the TRP’s bureaucrats argued that it was ok to hold the meeting out of state because the football game had a lot of university alumni in attendance and thus it was a good networking opportunity for them. The AG bought this line of argument, and my complaint was dismissed.
What’s shocking to me is that apparently the AG considers the convenience of the state bureaucrats holding the meeting to be of more importance than the public’s access to the meeting. This opinion sets a rather shoddy precedent whereby officials wishing to skirt public scrutiny can contrive some conference or other gathering out of state, and beyond the eyes of the public, at which they can hold their meeting.
If you have neither the time nor the funds to attend such a meeting, well then I guess you’re just out of luck.
AG Stenehjem’s office has always been very helpful to me in the past when it comes to transparency laws. I’ve given them a lot of credit for their work in this area, but this opinion does a real disservice to the public.
I guess the rules are different when applied to politically powerful higher education interests, not to mention an influential state Senator. They can spend money on country club membership and high-end meals, and apparently they can also get away with rather egregious violations of transparency laws too.