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Stenehjem says N.D. Industrial Commission violated open records law with records delay

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Industrial Commission violated the state’s open records laws by taking almost two months to fulfill a request for thousands of pages of meeting minutes, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem -- who sits on the commission -- said in an opinion issued Monday.

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A campaign volunteer for Democrat Ryan Taylor asked for the minutes. Taylor is running for state agriculture commissioner in November against incumbent Doug Goehring, who sits on the Industrial Commission with fellow Republicans Stenehjem and Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Stenehjem was put in the awkward position of having to review the panel’s actions after Taylor requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether the commission violated the open records law by not providing the meeting minutes within a “reasonable” amount of time as required by the law.

“I’ve never hesitated in this role to criticize other agencies and didn’t feel that in this case, just because it’s one where I happen to sit as a member, that they were entitled to any less scrutiny than anyone else would get, difficult as it was,” Stenehjem said in a phone interview Monday.

Ellen Chaffee, a former president of Valley City State University who also was Taylor’s running mate in his failed bid for governor in 2012, made the request March 5 for minutes of all Industrial Commission meetings from 2009 to March 1 of this year. Taylor requested the opinion on April 11 after Chaffee still hadn’t received the records.

Commission Executive Director Karlene Fine explained that the delay was due in large part to having to review more than 2,500 pages of minutes for confidential information. She provided the records in batches, and Chaffee confirmed on April 28 she’d received all of the records

Stenehjem noted in his opinion that the commission had only two staff members who were working on several big projects at the time, including Outdoor Heritage Fund grant awards and a new policy related to oil and gas drilling permits. A third staffer has since been added.

“Although I recognize that this was a voluminous request that came at an inopportune time and required a detailed review to assure no confidential information was released, such reasoning does not justify a nearly two month delay in responding to a request for meeting minutes,” he wrote.

Because Chaffee now has the records, “there are no further corrective measures to be taken by the Industrial Commission,” the opinion stated.

Taylor said he considers it a “win” that the commission has since started publishing its minutes online, which he said is expected in today’s government environment.

As for the violation of the open records laws, “I believe the responsibility resides with the three Industrial Commissioners, and I wouldn’t put this off on any employee,” he said.

Stenehjem agreed, saying “the buck stops with us.” He said the three commissioners weren’t aware that Fine was having difficulty completing the request, and that his office could have provided assistance, “but we just didn’t know.”

“It’s our responsibility … and I don’t want to be hard on Karlene Fine, because I think she’s the hardest working state employee I know,” he said.

Stenehjem’s Democratic challenger in the November election, Grand Forks attorney Kiara Kraus-Parr, issued a statement calling the violation another example of failed leadership and saying Stenehjem “decided to place blame on staff members.”

“After 14 years, North Dakota needs an attorney general that takes responsibility and follows the laws he’s suppose to be enforcing,” she said.

Goehring called the records delay “unfortunate” and said it was the commissioners’ responsibility, “and we’ve taken steps to make sure we can address people’s requests in the future.”

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.