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Port: Time for North Dakota's Land Board to stop hiding behind its commissioner

Every single member of the Land Board is a statewide elected official. We need to hear more from them, and less from Commissioner Jodi Smith Smith, and if their message is not a united one, so be it. At least that's the truth.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem
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MINOT, N.D. — Land Board Commissioner Jodi Smith was a bad hire for the State of North Dakota.

At least some members of the state's Land Board seem to know this.

Her hire a few years ago resulted from a sharply divided vote , and she just barely held on to her job after a review earlier this year.

I wrote last year that Smith needs to be replaced , and nothing has happened since then to change my opinion.

The Land Board — made up of Gov. Doug Burgum , Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem , Sec. of State Al Jaeger , Treasurer Thomas Beadle , and Superintendent Kirsten Baesler —oversees the management of lands and minerals owned by the state.

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These lands generate revenue in various ways — oil and gas development, agriculture, etc. — which, in turn, benefits the Common Schools Trust Fund . You don't typically hear a lot about this particular facet of state government, but lately, there's been much controversy around the board.

Specifically having to do with a massive (and in some cases decades-long) error in how royalty payments for some oil leases were calculated. This was the State of North Dakota's error. Still, Smith has taken a combative tone with the oil industry, demanding payment on a short timeline with threats of exorbitant interest rates and working the news media to make it seem like these companies were trying to shortchange school children .

Smith's approach troubled some members of the board.

PHOTO: Land Board Commissioner Jodi Smith
North Dakota Land Commissioner Jodi Smith listens during a Land Board meeting in March 2019. (Forum News Service file photo)

"During the most recent meeting of the Board of University and School Lands on May 25, Gov. Doug Burgum cited perceptions about the panel's relationship with the North Dakota oil and gas industry in a suggestion that the five-member board develop a more tightly defined media policy, seemingly in response to statements made by Land Commissioner Jodi Smith to reporters," Adam Willis reported in June .

That policy has now manifested as tighter controls on how Smith talks to the media. And, given that Smith is a loose cannon, that's an understandable impulse, but some in the news media are worried about the direction the board is taking with this policy. In a letter to the board, North Dakota Newspaper Association Board of Directors President Amy Dalrymple said discussions of the new media policy could "create a chilling effect."

She's right.

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I'm loathe to defend Smith since she is not good at her job, but the communications problem the board is having is the board's fault.

And a big part of the problem is that the board expects Smith to communicate a unified message from board members that don't necessarily agree with one another.

“What’s really important here is that the board comes across with one unified voice and 100% transparency. That’s my goal,” Smith said at a meeting of the board earlier this year .

But what happens when the board isn't united?

Recently the Land Board, by way of a filing in a legal dispute over the aforementioned royalty payments, asked a judge to declare House Bill 1080 unconstitutional. That bill was the Legislature's attempt to settle the royalty payments dispute, limiting the look-back for royalty collections to August 2013 and capping interest rates.

The bill passed 82-10 in the House, 39-7 in the Senate, and was promptly signed into law by Gov. Burgum, who is, I'd remind you, a member of the Land Board.

oil-pump-jack-1407715960720.jpg
North Dakota officials say 12 firms owe millions of dollars to the state after taking improper deductions from their oil royalty bills. Forum News Service file photo

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How is it that the Land Board, in a court of law, is asking that a law signed by a member of the Land Board be declared unconstitutional?

How can Smith speak with a "unified voice" about something like that?

This legal maneuver was not discussed publicly at any meeting of the Land Board. It did not appear on any Land Board agenda. No member of the Land Board, to my knowledge, has spoken publicly about this decision to challenge the Legislature over the royalties dispute.

Smith is a jumped-up bureaucrat who has gotten entirely too big for her britches, but the problems at the Land Board are bigger than her. The board seems intent on being opaque in its decision-making, and that needs to end.

Every single member of the Land Board is a statewide elected official.

We need to hear more from them and less from Smith, and if their message is not a united one, so be it.

At least that's the truth.

By the way, the other problem with the Land Board is how much time they're spending in executive sessions. That's an issue I've raised in the past , and one Dalrymple pressed to the board as well.

But if someone wanted to file an official complaint about whether all those executive sessions are appropriate, they'd have to make their case to Attorney General Stenehjem, who, as I've already mentioned, is on the Land Board.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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