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Senate OKs Smith for board despite critics

BISMARCK -- The Senate confirmed Wahpeton attorney Richie Smith for a second term on the state Board of Higher Education on Wednesday despite some senators using the occasion to bash the board and the University System.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, voted to confirm but "with all the celebratory enthusiasm of a retreat from Moscow," blasting "a system which has allowed itself to be a cocoon, isolated and insulated from the rest of state government."

Most critics spoke of "sending a message" to the board and system office and not necessarily to Smith personally.

Others praised Smith and the board for its work in recent years, including successful searches for eight new college presidents.

Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, said he sees "many positive things that have occurred since Mr. Smith has been on the board" and is impressed with Smith's plans for the board's plans to improve communications with the governor and Legislature.

The vote was 38-6, with three members absent.

Gov. John Hoeven earlier this year appointed Smith to a second four-year term and also named Claus Lembke of Bismarck as a new member. A Senate committee held a confirmation hearing last month. Senators confirmed Lembke 44-0 Wednesday, with no debate.

Smith said he was surprised to hear of the harsh comments, considering the confirmation hearing was "a delightful time" during which "I didn't catch any real concerns."

He said the board's place in the constitution causes inevitable conflict with the Legislature, just as there is between the governor and Legislature.

Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, long a critic of the board and University System, led the charge against confirmation Wednesday, complaining about the board's budget requests and saying board members act as though the system is more than a government agency.

"We cannot just let this system grow into the fourth branch of government," he said. "This is an agency, not a branch of government. And the only way that that message comes out of here is if we vote against the nominee."

Holmberg said the board needs to have a firmer hand on the tiller in managing the system office and complained, as he has earlier this session about what he believed were outsized raises for the University System office's highest-paid officials.

Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, reached back nearly three years in criticizing the board Wednesday.

"For too long we've expressed our disenchantment with the board and the higher education system in the (Capitol) hallways. So I regard this as a refreshing and healthy debate," he said. "I was most appalled, I think, with the events of a couple of years ago, when they let one college president undermine the chancellor and do an end run around him." It was a reference to former Chancellor Robert Potts' power struggle in 2006 with North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman, an imbroglio that led to Potts' resignation.