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AG is checking into two alleged illegal WSI meetings

BISMARCK -- The attorney general's office is investigating complaints that two committees of the Workforce Safety and Insurance Board may have violated the state open meeting law in the past month.

In both cases, the committees have three members. Consequently, any time two members correspond, call or are in the same place together, it constitutes a meeting for which the public must be notified in advance. The meetings were May 21 and June 10.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Thursday that his office would investigate the June 10 meeting. An investigation into the May 21 meeting was already underway.

WSI CEO Bruce Furness wrote Monday to the agency's staff and board saying he believes there was an inadvertent violation on May 21, when two of three members of the board's Governance Committee were at the East 40 restaurant in Bismarck for a supper that preceded the May 22 board meeting.

But Furness said a complaint alleging an unannounced quorum of the board's Audit Committee met is unfounded.

His memo describes a working supper in which Furness, Board Chairman Mark Gjovig of Williston, WSI quality assurance director Mary Thompson and consultant Stacy Sjogren discussed the board agenda for the next morning's meeting. Later, two other board members in town for the upcoming meeting, Mark Jackson and Mike Gallagher, both of Fargo, joined the group.

Still later, another board member, John Dyste of Forman, came to the restaurant and at first sat at a table alone, but was invited by the others to join them, Furness wrote.

Jackson and Gjovig are on the Governance Committee recently created by the board. Furness said Tuesday that, though the two did not talk about anything related to the Governance Committee, having two of its three members together "constitutes a meeting" and thus was probably a violation of the open meeting law. The third member is Ed Grossbauer of Grand Forks, who wasn't there.

Fired WSI employee Jim Long asked Stenehjem to investigate. Long's letter says a phone call alerted him the evening of May 21 that a quorum of the board's Audit Committee was meeting at the East 40. He went to the restaurant to see for himself.

Furness said Tuesday that he wasn't aware a complaint had been filed about a June 10 meeting of the board's ad hoc committee on raises. Forum Communications' Capitol Bureau in Bismarck reported the violation on Thursday. The meeting was done by conference call, facilitated by and originating at the WSI office.

Forum Communications' complaint alleges that during the ad hoc committee's discussion, Chairwoman Roberta Ripplinger of Minot made numerous references to having discussed the issue with her fellow committee members before the meeting. Ripplinger mentioned several times what the other two members' sentiments were, all before either of the other two members spoke during the meeting. The other two are Dyste and J.P. Wiest of Jamestown.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.