Forum Editorial: Why is it so hard for some officials to conduct public business in open meetings?
We’re baffled over the repeated violations of open meetings law by local governments. This really isn't difficult. Here’s the general rule:
“North Dakota’s laws state that all government records and meetings must be open to the public unless otherwise authorized by a specific law.”
That guidance comes from the North Dakota Office of the Attorney General. Minnesota has similar laws.
We repeat: Public meetings and records are open unless specifically exempted by law.
We’re offering this tutorial after the latest violation of open meetings laws by the board of the Fargo Park District, which has become a repeat offender in recent years.
The park board just finished a round of interviews involving five finalists for its executive director. The first four interviews were conducted behind closed doors, in flagrant violation of North Dakota open records laws.
The fifth interview, of Dave Leker, now serving as interim director, also would have been closed if The Forum hadn’t objected before the meeting. The park board consulted with the attorney general’s office and learned the meeting had to be open to the public.
Readers might recall that the Fargo Park Board ran afoul of open meetings law last August , when it issued an artfully vague notice of a public meeting, with the topic opaquely described as “HR/Staff review.”
That bland description failed to disclose that the review involved its executive director at the time, Joel Vettel, who ended up offering his resignation following a scathing staff survey of his performance.
Fargo Park Board publicly interviews last director finalist, but only after Forum objects
Maddingly, the park board violated open records law three years earlier during the selection process that resulted in Vettel getting the job. It failed that time to give public notice of a selection committee meeting.
Once again, the presumption should be that a meeting must be open to the public. For some reason, the Fargo Park Board just can’t grasp that simple guidance. Jerry Rostad, the park board chairman, blamed the latest violations on bad advice from their lawyer.
That might be — as noted, the park board has been a serial offender in recent years — but we remind the board members that, as elected officials, they are responsible to conduct their business in public.
The park board is hardly the only public meetings offender. Over the past five years, the North Dakota attorney general has found seven open meetings violations from local governments in the metro area — three by the Fargo City Commission , two by the Fargo Park Board , one by the West Fargo School Board and one by the Cass County Commission .
Many of these violations involved hiring or evaluating the performance of top administrators. Although it might be more comfortable to hold those conversations in private, they should be conducted in the open. Sunshine, it’s wisely said, is the best disinfectant.
When local officials close the door while conducting public business, they are locking out taxpayers and constituents who have every right to know what the people they elect to serve them are doing in their name.
Why is this so hard?