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Regional council violates open meeting laws

JAMESTOWN -- The South Central Dakota Regional Council violated the state's open meetings laws when it went into executive sessions at meetings last year, the state attorney general said in an opinion issued Tuesday.

JAMESTOWN -- The South Central Dakota Regional Council violated the state’s open meetings laws when it went into executive sessions at meetings last year, the state attorney general said in an opinion issued Tuesday.

The president of the council said Tuesday he hadn’t had a chance to read the full opinion, but said the board was wrong and “made an error in trying to handle that situation.”

The Jamestown Sun newspaper filed a request for an opinion from the state attorney general’s office after the board’s May 20 meeting. The Sun filed a second request after the board held a special meeting on June 5 with its attorney present.

The council met May 20 with one of the issues the board discussed was firing project manager Daniel Schwartz two days before for insubordination.  The board went into executive session to discuss staff terminations, an employment contract with Schwartz and the attorney’s advice regarding an invoice from Lutheran Social Services.

After the executive session ended, the board returned to open session and authorized, the council executive director, to contact the council’s attorney, Tim Ottmar, to develop an employment contract with Schwartz to complete the Stutsman County mitigation plan. The board also directed Kantrud to prepare a termination letter for Alison Kassian, the grant coordinator for the council and to have Ottmar continue to work on Lutheran Social Service’s invoice.

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At its June 5 special meeting, with Ottmar present, the board held an executive session for “attorney work product, negotiations, and consultations.” In the executive session the board discussed drafting an employment contract with Schwartz, the hiring of an independent investigator to investigate allegations of a hostile work environment made by Kassian and to discuss the May 20 executive session minutes.

In a 10-page opinion Stenehjem said there were four issues, two being whether the council’s executive board followed proper procedure before entering into executive sessions at its May 20 and June 5 meetings. The other two issues were whether the executive sessions held during those two meetings were authorized by law.

Stenehjem said the board failed to follow proper procedure before entering into executive session during the May 20 meeting because it failed to announce its legal authority for holding the executive session to the public during the open portion of the meeting. He said the board also violated the open meetings law when it failed to record the executive session.

At its June 5 meeting, Stenehjem said the board failed to follow proper procedure before entering into an executive session because it failed to sufficiently describe the topics to be considered during the executive session.

Stenehjem said the portion of the June 5 special meeting when the board received advice from attorney Ottmar regarding “reasonably predictable litigation with Ms. (Alison) Kassian was properly closed as attorney consultation.” But the rest of the executive session in which the board reviewed a drafted employment contract, discussed hiring an investigator and reviewed the meeting minutes of the May 20 executive session were not authorized by law.

Joe Neis,council executive board president, said he received the state attorney general’s opinion Tuesday morning and had not had a chance to do more than glance at it. He said he received a copy of the opinion from Kantrud, who was not available for comment as she was in Fargo attending meetings.

Neis said he was hesitant about going into the executive session on May 20. He said he knows there has to be particular reasons stated as to why a board is going into executive session.

“I see reading the conclusion that we should have kept it an open meeting,” he said about the May 20 meeting.

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Neis said everybody on the executive board was uncomfortable at the May 20 meeting due to the situation with Schwartz and Kassian. Ultimately he said the board shouldn’t have gone into executive session at both meetings.

“So, I guess we were wrong,” he said. “We made an error in trying to handle that situation in a very uncomfortable circumstance we were going through there, dealing with the employees.”

Neis said he thought the board was on solid ground when the board went into closed session at its June 5 meeting with Ottmar present.

“I thought we were getting some good guidance from our attorney,” Neis said. “But evidently the attorney general doesn’t see it that way.”

Each member of the executive board must individually provide a signed, written statement of his or her recollection of the conversations that occurred during the May 20 executive session, Stenehjem said in his opinion. These statements will be compiled and added to the written minutes from the executive session, and a copy of these minutes and statements will be provided to The Sun reporter who requested the attorney general’s opinion on this matter and to anyone else who requests a copy free of charge.

A copy of the meeting minutes from the June 5 special meeting and a copy of the recording of those minutes must also be given to The Sun reporter who requested the attorney general’s opinion and to others, again at no charge. Board members have seven days from the date of the opinion, issued Tuesday, to execute these corrective measures.

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