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Attorney general says Griggs County Commission violated open records laws

BISMARCK -- The Griggs County Commission violated North Dakota's open meetings and open records laws this year, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.

The commission failed to provide public notice of a Feb. 12 "community forum" held to discuss a then-proposed $3 million courthouse and emergency operations center, according to an opinion issued Wednesday by the attorney general.

All five county commissioners are facing a recall Oct 8.

The recall campaign was launched this spring, after the county decided to proceed with building a $3.5 million courthouse and emergency operations center despite voters rejecting three different building proposals in separate elections over the past two years.

After the third defeat, the County Commission initially set a fourth election in March. However, the board later rescinded that action and instead formed a building authority, which decided to proceed with the project.

The courthouse complex is under construction in Cooperstown.

The open meetings and open records complaints were filed by John Wakefield, a Cooperstown resident and a recall effort leader.

The County Commission had argued that it was not required to provide notice of the meeting because it was a "community forum," held by a group of county residents trying to promote the building of a new courthouse, and that commissioners attended the meeting in their individual capacities as "concerned citizens" and not as commissioners, according to the attorney general.

"When a public forum is conducted regarding an issue closely associated with public business it is nearly impossible for members of a governing body to attend only as 'concerned citizens' and not in their capacity as Commissioners," Stenehjem wrote in his opinion.

Four of the five county commissioners attended the forum.

"Regardless of the capacity in which the Commissioners attended the 'community forum,' a quorum was present," the attorney general wrote. "The topic of discussion at the forum related to the construction of the courthouse in Griggs County, a topic that has been before the Commission and undoubtedly relates to its 'public business.'"

The attorney general also ruled that the county violated the state's open records laws this spring when it took two months to provide public records to Wakefield.

In March, Wakefield had requested meeting minutes, notices, as well as bylaws and articles of incorporation of the Griggs County Building Authority from Griggs County Assistant State's Attorney Marina Spahr.

However, the attorney general ruled that the county did not violate open records laws when it took six days to provide Wakefield with minutes from Griggs County Commission meetings held during March.

The attorney general ordered the County Commission to draft minutes of the Feb. 12 meeting and provide them to Wakefield, free of charge, within seven days of Wednesday's ruling.

Since other records described in the complaint eventually were provided, no other corrective action is necessary, according to the ruling.