Democrats in N.D. Legislature urge board to open Fighting Sioux meeting to the publicDemocrats in the North Dakota Legislature have urged the president of the State Board of Higher Education to open the meeting scheduled April 22 concerning UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname. The meeting in Bismarck is to involve top NCAA officials, board officers, legislative leaders and the university’s president and athletic director.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
Democrats in the North Dakota Legislature have urged the president of the State Board of Higher Education to open the meeting scheduled April 22 concerning UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname.
The meeting in Bismarck is to involve top NCAA officials, board officers, legislative leaders and the university’s president and athletic director.
In their appeal today to board President Jon Backes, the Democratic-NPL caucus leaders asked that representatives of the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes also be invited to the meeting.
“We consider open and accessible meetings to be a tenet of good government and feel strongly that the meeting be open,” Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, and Rep. Jerry Kelsh, D-Fullerton, said in their letter to Backes.
“In addition, we think it is important to include representatives from tribal government should they wish to attend the meeting. Both tribes were mentioned in the settlement between the NCAA and the state of North Dakota, and they should be invited to a meeting between those two parties.”
Grant Shaft, vice president of the state board, has with Backes taken the lead in board dealings concerning the nickname issue. In disclosing plans for the April 22 meeting with the NCAA last week, he said it “would be more productive” as a closed face-to-face session.
House and Senate Republican leaders also were asked by the Associated Press to weigh in on the question of whether the meeting should be open or closed to the press and public.
In addition, Associated Press Capitol reporter Dale Wetzel wrote earlier this week to William Goetz, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, asking that the April 22 meeting be open and urging Goetz to circulate the appeal among board members.
“The future of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo is an issue of intense public interest,” Wetzel wrote. “To hold a meeting behind closed doors with NCAA officials, who have previously declared the nickname and logo to be hostile to American Indians, is antithetical to the spirit of open governance that the board works to foster.
“If the meeting is closed, everyone from interested members of the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes to UND students, legislators and alumni will feel excluded from discussions that are likely to influence an issue that is important to them.”
The Associated Press had asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem — one of the prospective participants in the meeting with the NCAA president and vice president — to give a formal opinion on whether such a meeting falls within requirements of the state’s open meetings law.
Stenehjem declined to provide a legal opinion. Since the meeting has not taken place, “there is no violation of the law to address,” he said.
“Attorney General Stenehjem’s assessment is troubling,” Herald editor and publisher Mike Jacobs said. “It’s akin to suggesting that the attorney general can’t prevent an illegal action even if he expects that one might occur.
“I hope he will give a full explanation of how this meeting might be exempted under the state’s laws,” Jacobs said. “That would allow those of us vitally interested in open meetings to assess whether or not there is an argument that this meeting might somehow qualify as closed when meetings of other bodies are considered open under almost all circumstances.”
If that doesn’t happen, “I believe the press would be justified in considering the meeting open and I’d likely assign a reporter to attend,” he said. “That would put North Dakota officials in the embarrassing position of ordering a reporter to leave.”
In his letter requesting an opinion from Stenehjem, the AP’s Wetzel referenced a 2007 opinion issued by the attorney general concerning the Grand Forks School Board. The board had delegated certain tasks to its president and vice president. They met without giving required notice and were challenged.
“If two executives of a governing body are delegated a duty, the resulting committee of two is subject to the open meetings law and notice requirements when it means to carry out those duties,” the Oct. 8, 2007, opinion states. Stenehjem concluded that the School Board violated the law.
In addition to Stenehjem, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the Legislature’s Republican leaders — Rep. Al Carlson of Fargo and Sen. Bob Stenehjem of Bismarck — have been invited to the sit-down with the NCCA. UND President Robert Kelley and Athletic Director Brian Faison also are expected to attend.
UND was more than a year through a transition away from the Fighting Sioux nickname when the Legislature adopted a law requiring that the name be retained and threatening legal action if the NCAA sought to punish UND for keeping it.
Stenehjem and the state higher education board had sued the athletics association after the NCAA put UND on a list of schools subject to sanctions for not dropping American Indian names and imagery, a policy adopted in 2005. A 2007 settlement of that lawsuit gave UND three years to win authorization from the two namesake tribes to continue using the Sioux name.
Spirit Lake said yes in a 2009 referendum and tribal council action, but Standing Rock’s tribal council stood by previous stands against the nickname, and efforts to arrange a reservation-wide referendum failed.
The state board directed UND to begin its transition in April 2010, but Kelley put that effort on hold when the nickname bill cleared the Legislature — after an overwhelming email campaign by supporters —and was signed by Dalrymple.
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.