North Dakota lawmakers were caught holding a meeting about the Department of Human Services budget behind a locked door in Bismarck. The meeting was exposed by Forum Communications’ John Hageman and the Associated Press’ James McPherson. You can read Hageman’s account of what took place here. Local journalists, covering the Capitol and it is important work.
According to a source, the House members in attendance of that locked-door meeting were Representatives Jon Nelson, Rick Holman, Lisa Meier, Gary Kreidt, and Randy Shobinger. That is five of the six members of the Human Resources Division a subcommittee of the House Appropriations that discusses Human Services. Although Chairman Nelson claims nothing “devious” was taking place, the absurdity of this practice is without question. The thing is, Because they claim it wasn’t an official meeting with five of the six members present, it is unlikely the committee clerk was taking minutes about what exactly was asked and discussed. Outrageous.
These lawmakers caught behind a locked door are making some excuse as if they needed a quiet place in the Capitol to work on a public budget. That is why they didn’t use their regular committee room. Bullshit. Committee work isn’t typically interrupted unless the Chair allows it. It isn’t as though people are walking around talking loudly while the committee is gaveled into work.
“It’s nice to have some quietness,” House Majority Leader Pollert said after admitting he also led committee work behind that same locked door away from the public. “Like I said, no action’s ever taken. No vote’s ever taken.” Simply because formal votes aren’t taken doesn’t mean decisions weren’t made for formal action later. Pollert inadvertently admits this isn’t the first time North Dakota lawmakers have held meetings about public work away from the public. It is unacceptably routine. This time they got caught.
Governor Burgum’s office was asked about the presence of the Department of Human Services Executive Director Chris Jones who services under Burgum. Burgum’s spokesman stated “this administration is committed to transparency” which carries a lot of irony. Earlier today, Burgum attended a meeting in Fargo with Senator Kevin Cramer and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. It was closed to the press according to a media advisory from Cramer’s office. Earlier in Burgum’s administration, he attended two official meetings with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Senator John Hoeven, Congressman Kevin Cramer. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also attended one but refused to enter the second one after being questioned if it was a open meetings violation. Both those meetings about public business were closed to the public. In fact, the police were called on the press for attempting to attend the meeting in Grand Forks. What a commitment to transparency!
As House Majority Leader Pollert admitted, this practice of discussing public work behind closed doors is common. It is potentially illegal. When lawmakers have been caught in the past, complaints were brought to their legislative leader. What happened following the confrontation and complaint? Empty promises that it wouldn’t happen again. Yet, here we are again. What these lawmakers and the House Majority Leader proved today was that voters were right in passing Measure 1 and forcing an Ethics Commission on elected officials in Bismarck. Unfortunately, lawmakers are now trying to lock voters out of the measure process because of it. Once it is established, perhaps these outrageous, arrogant abuses will be corrected and public work will be done transparently.