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ND SBHE prefiles legislation to restrict some open records

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The State Board of Higher Education has prefiled legislation to restrict some open records and meetings access, which varies from the original proposal discussed at the board's last meeting in November.

The prefiled legislation would protect records used by the board to prepare performance reviews for university presidents at the 11 institutions the SBHE oversees. The final reviews would be public record, which is different from the language originally used by Chancellor Larry Skogen at the Nov. 20 meeting and by a North Dakota University System document describing the intended legislation.

After a Dec. 3 article was published in various Forum Communication newspapers stating these facts, SBHE spokeswoman Linda Donlin reached out to the Grand Forks Herald via email later that day saying the board intended to restrict access only to the draft portion of the presidential reviews.

Murray Sagsveen, the system's chief of staff and ethics director, said the changes happened throughout the drafting process.

"When we're in draft form we were working with the language to make sure it said what we wanted it to say. ... As we were working, getting the language down to what we wanted, it went through several versions to make sure the bill draft said what was originally intended," Sagsveen said.

At the community forum, SBHE Staff Adviser Janice Hoffarth said that while they hadn't seen the final drafts, she was under the impression the original intention was to restrict access only to the draft portion of the reviews.

Board member Grant Shaft said hiring presidents and chancellors for the system is hard with North Dakota's current open records laws.

"We leave a lot of good candidates on the shelf because of the immediate exposure they get," he said at the forum.

While the board previously planned to prefile a piece of legislation that would restrict access to internal draft audits from open records requests, they ultimately chose not to.

Sagsveen said this decision was ultimately Skogen's, who could not be reached for comment.

"It was a better idea a month ago than it was today," Sagsveen said. "Sometimes you have an idea and ... after further thought you decide you don't want to submit a bill."

The prefiled legislation also aims to allow the board to go into executive session, which is closed to the public, when discussing the potential hiring of a new system chancellor. The board could allow the session to be public at the discretion of the "individual involved."

Sagsveen said the board currently can't go into this sort of session when hiring a chancellor and that this policy is exactly the same as the one in place for hiring university presidents.

"It allows the board to have the same kind of frank discussion about a potential chancellor," Sagsveen said.

Sagsveen said these kinds of changes are normal when drafting legislation and that after the board gave approval at its Nov. 20 meeting for Skogen and Chairwoman Kirsten Diederich to give final approval on the documents, that was the only action necessary.

"When you're drafting a bill you can't be holding a board meeting every time you want to change something," Sagsveen said.

In November, Diederich said the intent of the legislation was to allow the board to vet information and give people the opportunity to speak candidly about university presidents without fear their comments would become public.

The SBHE also prefiled legislation to restrict the mailing addresses of students enrolled in college from otherwise public records, request revenue bonds for improvements at Dickinson State University's Woods Hall and change the reporting structure relating to bonds for construction managers at-risk.

A piece of legislation was also filed to address the residence status of student veterans to reflect federal law, which is an entirely new addition that wasn't mentioned at the board's last meeting.

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