BISMARCK — State officials on two North Dakota government boards have called for new policies on dealings with the press in recent weeks, developments that some board members and observers say could lead to dangerous curtailments on public transparency.
During the most recent meeting of the Board of University and School Lands on May 25, Gov. Doug Burgum cited perceptions about the panel's relationship with the North Dakota oil and gas industry in a suggestion that the five-member board develop a more tightly defined media policy, seemingly in response to statements made by Land Commissioner Jodi Smith to reporters.
“Maybe there’s a practice that would allow for both protecting the commissioner, protecting the board’s interests, but yet still being fully transparent as we continue to work with industry,” said Burgum, who noted the importance of a policy to help guide the commissioner's public comments regarding a prolonged legal dispute between the land board and the state's oil industry. “Because I think sometimes (what) comes across is that somehow we’re being combative, when in fact I think that we all want to have as strong an oil industry as possible in North Dakota.”
Over the last year, the Land Board has been tied up in drawn-out litigation over old royalty payments from oil development on state lands. Smith has said that dozens of firms that have left tens of millions of dollars in royalties unpaid are "out-of-compliance." Burgum signed a bill this legislative session voiding outstanding royalties that predate 2013 and cutting the interest rates in half, a policy that Smith said has prompted 18 companies to come forward with settlement offers.
The Land Board does not currently have a media policy, and it's not clear what the new rulebook will require. Burgum said during the meeting that the policy would ensure that information on the royalty payments is presented to the media with the right context, and the governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the policy is a response to prior statements from Smith that weren't board-approved.
In raising the suggestion, Burgum cited a recent news report on the royalty dispute, possibly in reference to a KX News interview with Smith that ran a week before the board meeting. The names of the oil and gas operators on the hook for old royalty payments were first made public last July after the land commissioner provided a list of the companies to The Forum.
After the recent meeting, Smith said she will look at the media policies of state land administrations in other states to help craft a policy for the North Dakota board. “What’s really important here is that the board comes across with one unified voice and 100% transparency. That’s my goal,” she said.
The Land Board proposal to tighten its interactions with the press came a few days after members of a separate government panel, the State Investment Board, suggested imposing new media restrictions in response to independent actions taken by State Treasurer Thomas Beadle and Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, elected officials who sit on that board. The push from some appointed members of the board was echoed by a sitting representative of the state attorney general’s office, Troy Seibel, who disputed the argument that "not responding to the media is somehow not transparent." Seibel pointed out that board meetings and associated records are open to the public.
Godfread, who pushed back on the policy suggestion during the investment board meeting, said in an interview that he fears discussions around limiting public accessibility could have “a chilling effect” on officials’ interactions with the press.
And though Godfread said he was not aware of the Land Board proposal and couldn't speak to it specifically, he said even having the discussion about restricted media access can erode internal dynamics and public impressions about a board. “You get into trouble when there's any perception about a lack of transparency,” he said. “And I think that’s a huge threat to any public board."
The investment board currently has a policy stating that the body should speak with "one voice," but it also contains a catch-all provision acknowledging the right for members to speak independently. Godfread said limits on speaking to the press haven't previously been enforced and added that, as an elected official, he likely wouldn't abide by a new policy if it's adopted at a future meeting.
The executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, which advocates for transparency in state and local government, similarly criticized the potential tightening of media policies on both boards and said she hopes they're not indicative of a trend.
“Anytime there’s an attempt to codify barriers to answer questions to the public or to the media, it poses a transparency problem,” said Sarah Elmquist Squires, who added that her concerns extend even to discussions of unresolved lawsuits, as in the case of the Land Board, since those cases have ramifications for tens of millions of public dollars.
The land and investment boards would not be distinct among public North Dakota delegations if they put guardrails on member interactions with the press. The State Board of Higher Education has previously drawn some internal criticism for a policy stating that the chancellor or chair should be the spokesperson for the board. Former higher ed board president Kathleen Neset said members "don't lose their identity" when they join the board, but added that there's an expectation that dissenting members don't publicly voice their disagreements with board positions outside of the meeting.
During the Land Board meeting, Smith told the board that she has a good working relationship with oil industry lobbyists who have disputed the royalty claims, and noted that portrayals of that dynamic in the media are outside her control.
“That’s the challenging part of working with the press,” she said. “It’s a professional relationship that we have with the industry, and we succeed when they succeed.”
Beadle, who also sits on the Land Board, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem both volunteered to assist Smith in drafting the new policy. The full board is expected to review the proposal at their next meeting later this month, and a public comment period will follow.
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Sarah Elmquist Squires' title with the North Dakota Newspaper Association. She is the organization's executive director.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.