The Stenehjem Double Standard on Open Meeting Violations

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem determined the Cass County Commission violated the state’s open meeting laws when Commissioners attended a meeting at the White House in August. The circumstances of the violation closely resemble a situation Stenehjem found himself in one calendar year earlier. However, the similar situation rendered a different opinion from the Attorney General. Perhaps a double standard.

In August of 2018, three of the five Cass County Commissioners went to Washington to attend an event called the “White House State Leadership Conference.” A quorum of Commissioners joined officials from South Dakota and Wyoming. The White House determined press would not be allowed to take part in a meeting. Thus, the open meeting violation as determined by Stenehjem.

In August of 2017, a calendar year earlier, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt came to Cass County. Pruitt held a meeting with Senator John Hoeven, Congressman Kevin Cramer, Governor Doug Burgum, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in Fargo. I was the first to report the meeting was closed to the press and public. Burgum and Stenehjem are two of the three members of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. A quorum of Commissioners joined other North Dakota elected officials. The EPA determined the press would not be allowed to take part in the meeting. Yet, there was NO open meeting violation as determined by Stenehjem.

Why the Stenehjem double standard on open meeting violations? Similar situations but different outcomes. Stenehjem’s office ruled he didn’t violate the law because they claim business of the Industrial Commission wasn’t discussed. First, the public and the press weren’t allowed into the Pruitt meeting so it isn’t clear what was fully discussed. Second, the business of the Industrial Commission wasn’t known to the public. According to April 2018 Bismarck Tribune article by Amy Dalrymple, the Industrial Commission didn’t have the meeting minutes updated for the previous eight months. If I understand the situation correctly, eight months before the Dalrymple article of 2018, it would have been the near same month of the Pruitt meeting in 2017. Very timely for the Commission.

Should Stenehjem be determining potential open meeting violations into his own behavior? Does the voter-approved Measure 1 creating an ethics commission play any role here? Perhaps elected officials at the township, city, and county levels who Stenehjem has no problem determining violated state law should raise the issue with legislators. Lawmakers are now tasked with creating the parameters of an ethics commission even if some of them are whiny and reluctant to do so.