BISMARCK — A bipartisan panel of North Dakota legislative appropriators discussed the budget for the state's largest agency behind a locked door at the Capitol Thursday, March 21, because they "didn't want to be bothered," according to its chairman.
After being told of the meeting, reporters for Forum News Service and The Associated Press found the door to the Legislators Study and "Doctor of the Day" room locked by a key code. A lawmaker opened the door and allowed the reporters inside after they knocked.
The legislators paused the meeting, which was attended Department of Human Services Executive Director Chris Jones, and defended its location despite the availability of their traditional hearing room down the hall, where meeting notices indicated it would take place.
Republican Rep. Jon Nelson of Rugby, the subcommittee's chairman, said the meeting was open to the public and that they didn't use the room because of its locked door. House lawmakers have already held a series of public hearings on the Department of Human Services budget bill, which eclipsed $4.1 billion in total funding and 2,300 full-time equivalent positions as passed by the Senate last month.
Nelson indicated that they were now focused on amendments to the bill.
"It isn't a devious situation," he told reporters. "We needed to focus on what we were talking about. There's not many places you can go in the Capitol and go and do that."
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, a Republican who previously chaired the subcommittee, said he was told by his predecessor that the six-member panel didn't constitute a quorum of the full House Appropriations Committee. He said he used the room in question "a couple times" as chairman.
"It's nice to have some quietness," Pollert said. "Like I said, no action's ever taken. No vote's ever taken."
Pollert said lawmakers were checking with their staff about the open meeting rules.
"And if we're in violation, then needless to say we'll have to correct it," he said.
Jack McDonald, a lobbyist and attorney for North Dakota media organizations, offered a simple opinion about the circumstances of the meeting.
"Holding meetings behind locked doors are not public meetings," he said, later noting that the state constitution requires legislative committee meetings to be "open and public."
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he was "dumbfounded" when approached by reporters.
Gov. Doug Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the topic will be discussed during a regular Cabinet meeting Friday.
"When a committee requests an agency head's presence at a meeting, the agency head generally attends," he said. "But that being said, this administration is committed to transparency and full adherence to the state's open meetings law."