State’s Open Meetings Law needs some teeth

By: Steve Andrist | Executive Director, North Dakota Newspaper Association | @SteveAndrist

Tioga truly is the oil capitol of North Dakota.

It’s been an oil town all its life.

It’s where oil was first discovered in the state.

It’s been through all the booms and all the busts.

Right now, it is definitely feeling the bust.

It’s city commission is making massive budget cuts just to try stay afloat until the hoped for recovery surfaces.

It’s a glamorless, thankless, horribly challenging job.

So to get their arms around it, the mayor appointed a committee of two commissioners to meet, study and discuss a consultant’s recommendations and advise the full commission.

The city attorney believed the committee could legally meet in private.

He was wrong.

The Tioga Tribune questioned whether it was legal, but the city attorney assured it was, so they held the closed-door meetings with no meeting notices, no minutes, nothing.

So the Tribune filed an open meetings complaint with the attorney general’s office, and when it reported on past attorney general opinions, the city attorney admitted the violations and directed city officials to do the penance of creating minutes of the committee’s various meetings.

That would have been the same result had the attorney general officially found a violation.

Here’s the rub: The public was entirely left out of the entire process — illegally – and no one had a price to pay.

No one could watch the process, no one could choose to participate, no one had any way to evaluate or understand how massive budget cuts came about.

The minutes that were created ex-post facto contained the wrong dates. Even after the corrections, they shed no light on the process. They did little but meet the minimum requirements for minutes — identifying the meeting dates, those in attendance, a list of topics, a description of each motion and the roll call vote.

Since there were no motions or votes, the minutes were not very enlightening.

Here’s the other rub: even though the city had reason to question the legality of its actions, and subsequently admitted the law was broken, there is no penalty for anyone.

Therefore, there is little incentive for them to make sure they don’t do it again.

In other words, the law has no teeth.

That’s fine when a part-time city clerk in a town of less than 100 makes an honest mistake.

But the city of Tioga should have known better, and in fact some obvious red flags were in effect ignored.

In either case, the attorney general has little authority to do anything other than mete out some embarrassment and deliver a few harsh words.

That’s what happens with the lion’s share of the complaints that are upheld.

And the complainant, in this case The Tribune, must accept that the violator escapes with  a slap on the wrist. The only other option for the complainant is the long, arduous and expensive approach of filing suit.

That rarely happens. There is a current case, though, in which North Dakota Health Council was sued after adopting new, less stringent rules for disposal of radioactive waste.

The attorney general ruled the Health Council had violated provisions of the Open Meetings Law when it met to adopt the rules.

As in Tioga, the attorney general slapped the wrists and told the health council to provide minutes of the meeting.

Dissatisfied, the Dakota Resource Council, the ND Energy Waste Council and Darrell Dorgan  resorted to legal action, which it hopes will result in a judge invalidate the results of the tainted meeting.

In the end, giving the attorney general the authority to invalidate meetings might be just the teeth that would incent government entities to make sure they’ve watched their Ps and Qs.

All Trumped up

Throughout the history of the world certain kings and dictators have believed they could control the people by throwing them in jail for uncomplimentary comments.

As a result, our Founding Fathers made sure that no one could be imprisoned or beheaded for saying something the king or dictator didn’t like.

How full is the circle that we have come?

Earlier this month the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press took Donald Trump to task for acting a bit like a king or dictator.

Reporters Committee Chairman David Boardman responded with the following statement:

“The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the nation’s premier organization advocating for the First Amendment rights of journalists, is deeply troubled by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stance toward journalists covering his campaign. In particular, Mr. Trump’s decision to deny access to his campaign events to reporters from The Washington Post, Politico and other news outlets is an act of blatant disregard for the role of a free press in our electoral process, a role our nation’s founders understood and valued.

“The responsibility of the press is to ask challenging questions of candidates and to fully explore their records, especially when those candidates are running for the most powerful position in the world. For Mr. Trump to challenge that role demonstrates a repudiation of a basic American value. We urge Mr. Trump to rescind this revocation of credentials, and in doing so to express his commitment to the right of the public to the free flow of information.”

Sign of the times

In many communities, election campaigns mean that lawn signs sprout.

This year in Bismarck signs have been prevalent, with vibrant races for state, city and school board positions.

By far, my favorite lawn sign this election year was spotted in central Bismarck, proclaiming:

“Ryan Malm — 2016. Not running for anything, I just wanted a sign.”

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As published in the North Dakota Newspaper Association’s Publisher Quarterly, www.ndna.com.