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Published May 04 2013

Forum editorial: Time for decisive actions

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education has gone rogue. There is no other explanation in light of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s determination that the board was “pervasive” in its violation of open meeting laws. The violations were more widespread than was apparent earlier because board members routinely used email exchanges to reach consensus on issues – in effect, holding secret meetings.

As Stenehjem noted in his opinion, released Friday in response to an inquiry filed by The Forum, members of the state board have been briefed numerous times, orally and in writing, about the requirements of state open meetings and open records laws. So it simply isn’t credible to feign ignorance of the sunshine requirements, as some members tried to do. As Stenehjem pointed out, members of public boards have a duty to know the laws and to act accordingly. Many of the emails were instigated by Hamid Shirvani, the chancellor, who was intent on ramrodding his key proposals, including more stringent university admission requirements.

To do that, Shirvani orchestrated secret meetings, including what were described as “social dinners,” to win approval for his agenda without adequately airing the proposals in public. Sadly – infuriatingly – compliant board members allowed themselves to be Shirvani’s puppets instead of his overseers. Only two members, staff representative Janice Hoffarth and Kirsten Diederich, expressed concern that a “social dinner” – held in the private dining room of a restaurant – was going beyond what was appropriate under the open meetings law. Although there was no formal agenda for the dinner, members acknowledged to Stenehjem’s investigators that the conversation addressed some of the items on the agenda for the next day’s meeting. Although some members appeared to be acting in good faith, Stenehjem wrote: “There is sufficient reason to conclude that for some members failure to comply may be intentional.”

To remedy the violations, board members have a week to set up a comprehensive training seminar, to be held within two months, and to create minutes for two meetings, providing a detailed description of all public business discussed during the dinner for official minutes. They also must provide emails that went to a quorum of members.

The remedy for the board’s shattered credibility will be much more difficult. The board members were appointed by the governor. Although accountable to the public, they report to nobody. The board’s first opportunity to start regaining public trust is at their next meeting on Thursday. The public must see clear signs from the board that it understands the seriousness of its derelictions and is moving to upright the ship. We’ve already called for Shirvani and board President Duaine Espegard to resign for their poor performance and contempt for open government. We renew that call. If they fail to step aside, the other board members should remove Espegard as president and fire Shirvani. The eyes of North Dakota are upon the board, and the future of the state’s 11 colleges and universities is in their hands.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.