The Williston Parks and Recreation District Board has been found in violation of open meeting laws by North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley. The analysis issued to the WPRD Board says that the Board did not properly list an anticipated executive session held during their special meeting on April 27, 2021.
Jamie Kelly, former editor for the Williston Herald and Thomas Kalil, on behalf of Tom Simon of Williston Trending Topics News Radio, filed a request for the opinion, asking whether the WPRD Board violated North Dakota Century Code 44-04-20 by improperly noticing an executive session. Kalil also asked whether a violation of the same code occurred by not providing specific notice of a special meeting to his client.
Anyone can ask for an opinion regarding a public entity’s violation of the open records or open meetings law, according to the ND Attorney General’s website.
The website goes on to explain that they are required by law to base the opinion on the facts provided by the public entity accused of violating the code and states the process generally takes around 120 to 180 days. If the Attorney General finds a violation, the entity has seven days to take the required corrective action.
According to the facts presented to the Attorney General by the WPRD, the WPRD Board held a special meeting on April 27, 2021 and provided a notice with only one agenda item: “WPRD Long Term Funding.”
During the meeting, the Board entered an almost two-hour long executive session to discuss future funding. After returning from executive session, a vote was made and passed 3-2 to “choose option A, a one-cent sales tax increase” and to bring that option to the Williston City Commissioners for approval and use of the city’s home rule charter.
The Attorney General did not find that the WPRD Board violated requirements to provide specific notice of a special meeting to Simon of Trending Topics, due to a lack of documentation that Simon requested notification prior to the meeting.
To remedy the situation, the Attorney General is requiring the WPRD Board to redraft the special meeting notice for their April 27, 2021 meeting to indicate an executive session was held and to describe the subject matter and purpose of the executive session.
This new notice must be filed with the city auditor or posted on the Board’s website and in their main office for one week. The redrafted notice, minutes, notes, recordings, and any other memorialization of the April 27, 2021 special meeting must also be provided, upon request, to Simon, the Williston Herald, and anyone else requesting them — free of charge.
If the WPRD Board fails to comply with these corrective measures by May 26, they will be responsible for mandatory costs, disbursements, and reasonable attorney fees, if a civil action is sought and achieved. It could also result in personal liability for the persons responsible for the noncompliance.
“I’m glad to see the Attorney General’s office agreed that the Williston Parks and Recreation District Board violated the state’s open meeting law when they failed to include an executive session on the agenda,” Kelly said. “While I wish the board members would have to face some kind of consequences for their actions, I hope this public rebuke will send the message that failing to follow the state’s open meeting laws, whether because of ignorance, incompetence or malice, is unacceptable.”
Officials on governing boards need to remember their first duty is to the public, Kelly added.
“Violations of the law regarding open meetings destroys the public’s trust,” he said. “The board should issue an apology to the public for what they did and the members should educate themselves on the law so they can follow it in the future.”