The search is underway for a new Land Commissioner. Last week, Jodi Smith turned in her resignation effective Oct. 28th. Smith first told KFGO radio she has been hired by the group that is managing the Red River diversion project in Fargo-Moorhead. Her resignation is a loss to the state, for good public service, and our education system. With what she went through as she stood up for our schools, can you blame her for moving on to new opportunities? How will it impact the search for a new Commissioner?
You can listen to Jodi Smith and my conversation on KFGO’s Afternoons Live where we first heard of her new role below.
Recall, the reason Smith earned the job of Land Commissioner. She was voted into the role by the Land Board because she was viewed as a “change agent” and a “great communicator” for the Department. Governor Doug Burgum, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, and then-State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt voted to give her the role over long-serving Commissioner Lance Gaebe.
She got to work quickly. Smith was the first to bring to light the fact $262 million had been “misplaced” which forced the Legislature to make corrections and move money around. The public outrage over the multi-year, multi-million dollar error likely played a role in State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt’s decision to not seek reelection in 2020.
When a “change agent” gets to work, things can get uncomfortable for those looking to maintain the status quo. When Smith continued to work and ensure North Dakota schools received the money they were owed from the oil and gas industry through state-owned royalties, a lot of people got uncomfortable including Governor Burgum. You can read last year’s NDx coverage of that conflict at the link below.
Initially, Smith and our schools won. The Court agreed the state was owed money from oil and gas companies who violated their lease agreements. Enter lobbyists, politicians, and appeals.
After vigorous lobbying from oil industry special interest representatives, the Legislature changed the law to limit the Court decision’s impact. Burgum signed the industry-backed legislation. The state could no longer collect the money owed to our schools beyond the year 2013. The industry publicly celebrated.
Smith argued the legislative change was unconstitutional. Northwest District Judge Robin Schmidt sided with the legislature and oil industry. Days following Smith’s resignation, Judge Schmidt again sided with the industry in royalties owed and kicked a different case back to the lower courts.
A decision by the Land Board on whether or not to appeal the latest court decision handed by Judge Schmidt will be held on Oct. 28th which is coincidently the last day of Smith’s tenure. Given their waffling over the past years, don’t expect much from the Board in this case.
Additionally, the politicians on the Land Board became upset with how their work was being portrayed in the media. To get a better grip on the narrative they wanted, members of the Board tried to muzzle the Land Commissioner. They created a new media policy. Turns out they wanted somebody to effectively communicate only what they wanted to public to hear.
In summary, a state employee was hired for their skill. When their skill went against powerful special interests, high profile politicians – Doug Burgum – turned their back on the employee rather than standing up for their outstanding work. Who’d want to work in an environment like that? Expect the Board to narrowly focus on finding someone who will do their political bidding even if it goes against the greater interests of our state.
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