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Published April 25 2013

North Dakota higher ed board VP asked about open meeting law at dinner

FARGO – Recollections from a Jan. 16 dinner meeting at Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s home show that one state Board of Higher Education member recalled asking whether it was subject to the state’s open meeting law and, if so, whether the board had followed the required procedures.

“I was assured that we had,” board Vice President Kirsten Diederich wrote in her recollection of the meeting.

But Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in an April 18 opinion that the board violated the open meeting laws because of inadequate public notice and minutes. He required the board to re-create the minutes, including a detailed description of what was discussed, and have members write their own descriptions of the dinner.

Per Stenehjem’s order, a copy of those minutes and descriptions were provided free of charge Thursday to The Forum, which had requested his opinion on both the Jan. 16 dinner and a March 6 dinner social attended by Shirvani and board members at a Bismarck restaurant.

Stenehjem initially ruled the March 6 social wasn’t subject to open meeting laws. But after hearing from several people who attended the dinner that public business was discussed, he has asked board members to provide by Monday their own account of what was discussed.

According to the re-created minutes of the 2½-hour dinner on Jan. 16, board members met at Shirvani’s home at about 6:30 p.m. and sat at two separate tables.

Among the topics discussed were higher education issues during the current legislative session and how the legislative process works, as it’s the first session of the Legislature for several board members.

The board also discussed the university system’s budget, including carryover funds from year to year, as well as the chancellor’s office and the governor’s proposed funding model for higher education. Members also discussed the agenda for their meeting the next day at Bismarck State College.

Board President Duaine Espegard recalled that the University of North Dakota’s medical school addition “was mentioned,” while board member Janice Hoffarth recalled that “the Medical school options were discussed.

“Also the bills to dissolve the board were discussed and what it would mean to the system,” Hoffarth wrote, apparently referring to a resolution that has since passed the Legislature that will allow voters to decide in 2014 whether to replace the eight-member, part-time board with a three-member, full-time commission to oversee higher education.

Board member Grant Shaft wrote that he didn’t recall any board policy discussions “aside from perhaps an update from the Chancellor on where some matters stood, but I am very vague on that.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528