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N.D. AG looking into possible second open meeting violation by higher ed board

BISMARCK – North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is investigating a possible second violation of open meeting laws by the State Board of Higher Education after hearing accounts of a March 6 dinner meeting that contradict what he was told by a North Dakota University System official.

Stenehjem was asked by The Forum newspaper last month to look into the board possibly not complying with the state’s open meeting laws at two dinner events earlier this year.

In an April 18 written opinion, he said the board had violated the laws during a Jan. 16 dinner at Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s home in Bismarck because of inadequate public notice and minutes. But he ruled a March 6 dinner social at a Bismarck restaurant was not subject to open meeting laws, a determination he made based on a March 25 letter from University System General Counsel Claire Holloway that was the official response of the board.

When asked if public business had been discussed at the March 6 meeting, Holloway wrote, “No. The conversations were social in nature.”

But Stenehjem sent letters to board members and Shirvani on Tuesday saying that several people who were at the dinner – only Shirvani and the board were there – have told him since that public business was discussed.

“If the topics of discussion as presented to me are correct, then the Board may well have acted in violation of the open meetings statutes, notwithstanding the assurances in the board’s official response to this office that it had not,” Stenehjem wrote.

In the letter, Stenehjem instructs each person who was at the meeting to reply by April 29 with their own account of what was discussed. He also asks board members if they provided information to Holloway for the board’s response, or if they did or did not reply to Holloway’s previous request to know if the Mach 6 conversation had included official business.

“I ask that you answer the questions individually without conferring with one another about the topics of discussions at the meeting,” he wrote. “This is to assure that each member provides his or her own recollection, as well as to avoid additional open meetings problems.”

Stenehjem’s letter cites North Dakota Century Code chapter 44-04-17, which defines “public business” as any matters that relate to “the performance of the public entity’s governmental functions, including any matter over which the public entity has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power,” or “the public entity’s use of public funds.” He also reminds the recipients that it’s a Class A misdemeanor to make a false written statement in a governmental matter.

By Ryan Johnson

Forum News Service

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