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New policy on North Dakota board's press interactions sparks concern from media groups

Gov. Doug Burgum raised the possibility of a new policy for the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands earlier this summer in response to statements made by the state land commissioner to reporters. Some watchdog groups and members of the press have expressed concerns that tighter rules could have "a chilling effect" for government transparency.

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North Dakota Land Commissioner Jodi Smith listens during a Land Board meeting in March 2019. Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — An influential North Dakota government board adopted new rules governing its interactions with the press on Thursday, Aug. 26.

The media policy for the Board of University and School Lands was suggested earlier this summer by Gov. Doug Burgum in response to statements made by Land Commissioner Jodi Smith to some reporters, which he said could create incorrect perceptions about the panel's relationship with the North Dakota oil and gas industry.

Among the conditions instituted under the new policy, the land commissioner is expected to inform members of the board of any “significant” interactions she has with the media. It also specifies that she cannot make any policy statements to the press on issues before the board until its members have formulated an official position.

Smith was tasked with drafting the policy over the last two months with the consultation of two other board members. The five-member panel, which did not previously have a media policy, voted unanimously during their meeting Thursday to adopt the new guidelines.

Some state leaders and watchdog groups raised concerns earlier this summer that discussions of a tighter media policy could discourage communications with the press or restrict public access to important board decisions. The panel received two letters to that effect during a monthlong comment period ahead of their latest meeting.

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Among them was a letter from North Dakota Newspaper Association Board of Directors President Amy Dalrymple, which said discussions of the new media policy could "create a chilling effect" for Smith's interactions with reporters.

Dalrymple, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Bismarck Tribune , noted the Land Board often deals in complicated subject matter, such as oil and gas royalty deductions that have been the subject of a recent state lawsuit. She argued that access to the commissioner can be important for reporters to better understand the issues and accurately convey them to readers.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem , a member of the board, said during Thursday’s meeting that the new policy is designed to protect Smith from having to offer her independent viewpoint on an issue rather than the unified position of the board.

Requests to speak with the commissioner to get background on complex issues, he said, are fine and within the bounds of the new guidelines.

“I think that this is a sensible policy,” Stenehjem said. “We want to be responsive to the media and certainly appreciate their comments.”

Dalrymple also raised concerns about the board’s “frequency of closed-door executive sessions,” used regularly to discuss ongoing litigation without reporters present. She said she hopes the new media policy does not increase the frequency of these closed-door meetings and urged the board “to only enter executive sessions when discussing legal strategy,” not broader court case updates.

Stenehjem and Secretary of State Al Jaeger, also a board member, said during the meeting that they believe the board is implementing executive sessions appropriately and that it has ensured general case updates are not discussed during those times.

In an interview after the meeting, Smith said she was encouraged by the input from several board members that the new media policy would not result in unintended consequences like limitations to public access.

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The board did not make any changes to the policy based on the submitted comments.

In addition to Stenehjem, Jaeger and Burgum, the land board consists of State Treasurer Thomas Beadle and Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com .

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