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Hettinger Public School Board violated century code, AG says

On Wednesday, North Dakota State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem published an opinion which found that the Hettinger Public School Board violated century code to discuss changing a teacher's contract.

Hettinger Public School
The Hettinger Public School is pictured. On Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, North Dakota State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem published an opinion which found that the Hettinger Public School Board violated century code to discuss changing a teacher's contract.
Contributed / Hettinger Public School
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In an opinion released by the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office Wednesday, the Hettinger Public School Board violated open meeting laws by entering into an executive session without adequately describing in the meeting agenda what would be discussed. A complaint was filed by Hettinger resident Michael Geiermann to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office inquiring on the legality of the executive session.

During a meeting on Jan. 13, 2021, the school board received correspondence in the form of a letter from the Hettinger Agriculture Education Advisory Board Committee recommending the role of agriculture instructor be made into a full-time position.

The board then approved a motion to enter an executive session to discuss “negotiating strategy,” for a duration of approximately 41 minutes. On the meeting agenda, this was merely described as “Negotiations of Contracts,” with no explanation of what was to be negotiated.

North Dakota law states that citizens must be notified of all meetings by a public entity. The notice must include the date, time, location, topics to be considered and the “general subject matter of any executive sessions expected to be held during the meeting.” The opinion of the attorney general's office found that the board failed to provide the public any information regarding the executive session topic.

The statutory violations include failure to comply with notice requirements as outlined in North Dakota Century Code. The school board also exceeded its legal authority by discussing topics outside beyond the explanation for the executive session.

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The attorney general’s office does acknowledge that announcements can be sufficient when contextually placed in connection to other agenda items. Yet “AG/FACS Position” was listed under new business, without implying any connection to the contract negotiations. Therefore, the notice was insufficient.

Stenehjem concluded that the board must take steps to remedy these violations and bring itself into compliance with the law. He ordered revisions of the Jan. 13, 2021, meeting notice to describe the general subject matter of the executive session; the revised notice must be posted at the school district office for one week.

School board meeting minutes must be amended to accurately reflect what was discussed. The board is obligated to provide updated notice and minutes, as well as the choice of a recording or transcript or the executive session to Geiermann or anyone else who requests them. The board must provide these materials at no cost to the individual making the request.

The attorney general's office ordered that these corrective measures must be completed within seven days from the release of his opinion. Failure to do so would make the school board subject to mandatory costs, disbursements and reasonable attorney fees. It could also mean personal liability of anyone responsible for non-compliance.

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