FARGO – A Forum reporter was escorted out of an F-M flood diversion meeting Wednesday at the downtown public library that included about 36 people, including several area elected officials.
The Forum chose to send a reporter because it believed the meeting involving the $2.2 billion public project ought to be open to the public. Last week, another Forum reporter was asked to leave a flood diversion meeting convened by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton inside Moorhead City Hall.
When asked at a news conference after Wednesday’s meeting why the public and press was kept out, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams didn’t immediately answer.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, taking a stab at the answer, said one reason was attorneys would be consulted about the lawsuit filed by the state of Minnesota and upstream interests against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Flood Diversion Authority, a group made up of elected officials from Fargo, Moorhead, Cass and Clay counties.
But Col. Sam Calkins, who runs the corps’ St. Paul district, which includes Fargo-Moorhead, said in the news conference that Gov. Dayton and representatives of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources had been invited to the meeting.
According to the meeting agenda obtained by The Forum, Rep., Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a Dayton ally, would also send a staff member.
There was another reason for closing the meeting, though.
“The primary reason is,” Burgum said, “we want to make sure everybody in the room feels comfortable sharing their concerns.”
The meeting also helped introduce Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, the new head of the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division. A press conference had been scheduled at the city-owned library at 10:30 a.m. following the meeting, according to press releases from the corps and Hoeven’s office; Hoeven’s release said he would “host” Kaiser.
The press releases didn’t say the meeting was closed, nor did it say when the meeting would start. It was already underway when a Forum reporter entered the meeting room at 9:30 a.m. and was immediately escorted out by a Diversion Authority staff member.
According to the library policy for use of its meeting rooms as posted on its website, “all meetings must be open to the public. Meetings may not be restricted to any particular group or individuals.”
Elected officials The Forum saw at the meeting were Sen. Hoeven, Gov. Burgum, Mayor Williams, Clay County Commission Chairman Kevin Campbell, Fargo Deputy Mayor Dave Piepkorn and Cass County Commissioner Mary Scherling. A Diversion Authority official told The Forum Cass County Commission Chairman Chad Peterson was also present.
All five local officials are on the 13-member Diversion Authority board. North Dakota laws require meetings involving a quorum of the board of a public organization, typically at least half its members, must be open to the public. This meeting did not appear to involve a quorum of the Diversion Authority, though it may be interpreted that the five were acting as a committee of the 13-member body, which would require it be open.
Dayton’s staff members, in closing his Oct. 4 meeting, also said the meeting didn’t have to be open because there was no quorum of any public organization in attendance.
The Forum last Sunday published an editorial calling for more transparency in the diversion decision-making process.
“Whether permitted or not by law to hold these meetings in private is not really the point,” Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon said Wednesday. “This is a massively expensive project, with massive public expense and impact. The people should know what is happening and their elected leaders should want them to know.”
Following the meeting, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum took to Twitter saying: "Grateful for the collaboration and open dialogue with everyone working to find a path forward on the F-M Diversion."
Grateful for the collaboration and open dialogue with everyone working to find a path forward on the F-M Diversion. pic.twitter.com/Avuq5HSwZ2
- Doug Burgum (@DougBurgum) October 11, 2017