- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A majority of state Board of Higher Education members said Thursday that lawmakers should reconsider moving control of lawyers and auditors from the university system to other agencies.

The proposal would force eight lawyers and three auditors in the system to reapply for their jobs and compete against other applicants. It has been criticized by university system staff and faculty who are worried about losing qualified people who won’t want to work for less money.

Some lawmakers cite numerous violations of the state’s open meetings and records laws as a need for the change. The legislation has passed the House and was presented at three Senate hearings earlier this week. It will now be hashed out by a legislative subcommittee.

Under the new setup, the legal staff would report to the attorney general and the examiners would report to the auditor’s office. Eric Murphy, the board’s faculty adviser, said he’s not necessarily worried about who has control of those employees.

“The major concern among faculty is losing expertise,” Murphy said. “It’s a large concern.”

Emma Tufte, spokeswoman for the North Dakota State Staff Senate, read a resolution opposing the bill. Janice Hoffarth, the staff adviser to the board, gave a rundown of years of service by the affected employees and said it added up to 220 years.

“I think we owe to the people who have worked as hard as they have for us with the expertise that they have, not to start all over again,” said board member Kevin Melicher, who proposed the statement.

Board members Grant Shaft, of Grand Forks, and Kathleen Nesset, of Tioga, voted against the motion. Shaft said the changes are inevitable and are the result of the system’s unsuccessful attempt over several years to beef up auditing services.

“With regard to the external audit function, we have not gotten it done,” Shaft said.

Shaft said he preferred that the board stay neutral in order to maintain “a seat at the table” in Bismarck.

The board statement came after Deputy Attorney General Thomas Trenbeath and Auditor Robert Peterson testified on the bill.

Trenbeath said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has long believed - back to the time he was a state lawmaker - that legal services should be consolidated in the attorney general’s office. Trenbeath said he would like to keep the number of lawyers at eight, rather than six as lawmakers have offered.

“We would like the full complement if we’re going to take on the full job,” he said.

Peterson said the plan would double the amount of auditors to six and would greatly benefit management. He said three auditors is “rather puny” for such a large system.

“I’m going to embrace it, because this is what the Legislature wants,” Peterson said.

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