Dickinson schools ponder fix for tainted ballot language

ND’s top election official says wording on Dickinson ballot could lead to contested results. (Dickinson Press file photo)

DICKINSON, N.D. — Dickinson Public Schools officials are looking for a way to set aside the results of a ballot measure because the language of the measure may have violated state law.

The ballot measure asked whether the Dickinson School Board minutes should continue to be published in The Dickinson Press, a Forum Communications publication. However, the ballot language stated that doing so would come “at a significant cost to the taxpayers.”

“You can’t put surplus language into the wording of a ballot measure,” said Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, “especially if it appears that the language is intended to influence the vote.”

In 2002 Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion confirming that state law does not permit surplus language such as estimated costs to be included in the ballot language.

“The Dickinson measure was worded in a way that would influence voters,” Andrist said, “and as a result it was defeated.”


The vote total was 3,011 against publishing school board minutes and 2,160 in favor.

Recognizing the problematic wording of the measure, Dickinson Schools Superintendent Shon Hocker told The Dickinson Press that the board at its meeting Monday would consider setting aside the vote and continuing to publish board minutes.

Andrist praised Hocker’s approach, noting that it would be a far better result than a court challenge contesting the election on the basis of improper surplus language.

State law requires school districts to vote every two years on the question of publishing minutes in the official school newspaper. This was not the year for most school districts to vote on the question, but in 20 districts for which results could be found Dickinson was the only one where the measure was rejected.

Excluding Dickinson, 81% of voters in those districts voted in favor of publishing minutes.

“That’s a huge mandate,” Andrist said. “Most ballot measures, and candidates too, don’t come anywhere close to that kind of support. But North Dakota citizens deeply value transparency and the accountability it brings.”

Like school districts, cities also are required to ask voters about publishing the minutes of city boards. In 199 cities voting on the measure this week, the combined vote showed 82% favor publishing minutes.

“That’s typical, and has been for many, many years,” Andrist said. “Our research shows voters want to keep tabs on local governing boards, and they want to do it by reading the newspaper and not by going to some government web site.”


Meanwhile, minutes ballot measures also were problematic in the cities of Hazelton and Gackle, Andrist said. Prior to the election officials in those cities sent letters to voters suggesting that they vote against publishing minutes, which appears to run afoul of an attorney general’s opinion stating that public funds cannot be used to advocate for or against a candidate or a ballot measure. However, voters in those cities strongly supported publishing minutes despite the suggestion from local officials.

What To Read Next
Get Local