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House rejects bill with $500 fine for repeat violators of sunshine laws

BISMARCK - House lawmakers defeated a bill Monday that would have imposed a $500 fine on repeat violators of North Dakota's open records and open meetings laws, but a West Fargo lawmaker put public bodies on notice that the proposal could return.

BISMARCK – House lawmakers defeated a bill Monday that would have imposed a $500 fine on repeat violators of North Dakota’s open records and open meetings laws, but a West Fargo lawmaker put public bodies on notice that the proposal could return.

House Bill 1435 failed 21-72 after receiving a unanimous do-not-pass recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Randy Boehning, R-Fargo, who sponsored the bill with three other Republicans, said it was prompted by several open meetings violations by higher education officials, including one in June 2013 that happened the day after Board of Higher Education members received training on the laws. Records compiled by the state Legislative Council show the board and the institutions it governs have violated open records and meetings laws 15 times since 2011.

The bill would have imposed a $500 civil penalty on a member of a state governing body who violated the laws more than once.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem opposed the bill. He said it raises a number of complications, including that attorney general opinions are issued to the public entity and not necessarily the individual members responsible for the violation and that board members may have relied on bad legal advice.

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The committee’s chairman, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, commended Boehning for introducing the bill, saying, “I think his motives were pure.” He said members of the media have told him that North Dakota has the best open records and open meetings laws in the country, and noted the current penalty for a violation is public embarrassment.

“Maybe for some that isn’t a sufficient penalty, and whether or not we need to look at applying one, we just didn’t feel this bill was the right vehicle or the right time,” he said.

Koppelman said Stenehjem assured the committee and him privately that a task force Stenehjem plans to appoint after the legislative session will address possible penalties for violations.

“So, I think the word that should go out to public bodies around the state is that we are watching, and if this is violated without consequence, there probably will be a consequence someday,” he said.

 

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com .

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