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Published June 15 2013

Forum editorial: Higher ed still not learning

‘They just don’t get it” is among those hackneyed expressions that can easily lose its meaning. But in the case of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education: They just don’t get it.

Once again the board is engaged in rhetorical gymnastics in an attempt to explain away what appears to be another violation of the state’s open meeting laws. In recent months, no other major public body in the state has run afoul of the law more times than has the higher ed board. The board was admonished by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in language that was uncharacteristically harsh. The Forum and Forum Communications have led efforts to keep the board’s proceedings open and transparent, as is required by law. The board’s own in-house legal counsel (before he was shown the door for doing his job) warned members again and again they were violating open meeting and open records laws.

Apparently very little is getting through to them.

The board’s latest snafu (or was it a hubristic in-your-face message to the attorney general?) occurred last week when three board members conducted an unannounced “listening session” with the 11 campus presidents. It was not a meeting, they said, because three board members did not constitute a quorum. “It’s not an official meeting. Nobody authorized it,” said board President Duaine Espegard, “nobody set up a committee or anything like that.”

That spin won’t fly, said media attorney Jack McDonald, the state’s premier expert on open meeting and open records law. McDonald has been paying close attention to the laws from their very beginning. He knows a violation when he sees one.

That being said, the attorney general has the last word. AG Stenehjem has been a vigorous advocate of open government under the law. Even in cases in which the lines might not be clear, he has most often come down on the side of open government. In other words, he recognizes both the letter and spirit of the law.

Does the board not get that? Do board members not understand they are under intense – and justified – scrutiny because of the clumsy way they mishandled the Chancellor Hamid Shirvani embarrassment? Why would they even consider what appears to be another end run around the open meeting laws?

The board is not yet on the path to restoring North Dakotans’ confidence in the management of the university system. They won’t get there if they conduct the public’s business in “listening sessions” where the public is barred from listening.

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