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OUR OPINION: No excuse for secret meetings

Another day, another apparent violation of the North Dakota Open Meetings Law, this time by the Alerus Center Commission. And another round of "We had no idea!" excuses by public officials. Isn't it time for officials to stop making excuses and s...

Another day, another apparent violation of the North Dakota Open Meetings Law, this time by the Alerus Center Commission.

And another round of "We had no idea!" excuses by public officials.

Isn't it time for officials to stop making excuses and start following the law?

On today's page, the Herald is printing relevant portions of the open meeting law. We're doing this so public officials (and everyone else) can see how simple and straightforward the law is. No more excuses; just read and obey the law.

After all, the open meeting law is written in plain English, as is much of the Century Code. And it states the case plain:?

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A "public entity" includes "public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, or agencies" that "exercise public authority or perform a governmental function." It also includes "organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds."

Furthermore, "all meetings of a public entity must be open to the public." "Public notice must be given in advance of all meetings of a public entity," and "minutes must be kept at all open meetings."

It's these last provisions that Alerus Center Commission members may have blithely ignored.

Why "blithely"?

Because a few members of the Alerus Center Commission, meeting essentially in secret, may have made policy decisions involving hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. The decisions went into effect right away but weren't affirmed by the full commission until months later.

If that's not "exercising public authority" or "performing a governmental function," nothing is.

The commission members should have known that any committee -- whatever its size -- that exercises such power is subject to open-meeting laws. But in case there was any uncertainty, there are North Dakota attorney general's opinions on this very issue: "A meeting of less than a quorum of a governing body may still be subject to the open meetings law if the smaller group has been delegated authority by the governing body," reads one.

Reads another, "A committee delegated authority to perform any function ... on behalf of a governing body is subject to the state's open meetings law."

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The latter opinion stemmed from an open-meeting violation of the Grand Forks School Board. Dakota Huseby of KNOX-AM Radio had lodged the complaint, and the Herald as well as KNOX-AM and other outlets covered the attorney general's decision.

Big decisions by the Alerus Center Commission or any other public entity cannot be made in secret. If events really did unfold as outlined above, then commission members should have known better.

Wise captains in the U.S. Navy tell their officers of the deck, "If you're wondering whether to call me about something involving the ship, call me." Wise members of governing bodies in North Dakota and Minnesota should operate the same way. If the thought that a meeting should be public crosses their minds, they should open the meeting.

That should be the default answer to any uncertainty, in other words. It would improve governance, make officials' stock go up in the public's eyes -- and save those same officials from making embarrassing excuses.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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