- Associated Press - Friday, March 22, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Legislature’s top attorney planned to meet Friday with legislative leaders to remind them of the state’s open record requirements after acknowledging a House panel improperly met in secret behind a locked door.

Legislative Council Director John Bjornson refused to call the meeting illegal but said the state constitution “is clear” when it specifies that all legislative meetings must be “open and public.”

Reporters from The Associated Press and Forum Communications learned Thursday of the meeting by the bipartisan House Appropriations subcommittee. It reviews human services spending, which makes up a about a third of all state spending.

The meeting was held in an obscure room that could only be accessed by a key code. The meeting was advertised as being in the subcommittee’s normal meeting room at the state Capitol, which was vacant at the time.

Bjornson said he planned meetings Friday with House Majority Leader Chet Pollert and House appropriators to discuss the matter.

“We’ll advise them on what the law is, how they should hold their meetings and make sure they hold their meetings in compliance with the law and that they’re fully aware of the requirements,” Bjornson told reporters.

Pollert asked Thursday for a legal advice on the meeting from the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm headed by Bjornson. Pollert said Friday the committee will no longer hold meetings in the locked room.

Republican Rep. Jon Nelson, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, said Thursday that the panel has held meetings have been held in the room for at least a decade. He told reporters the panel met in the private room “because we didn’t want to be bothered.”

Nelson said the panel was working on amendments for the agency, the state’s biggest, both in terms of its budget and employees. The Senate already has passed a $4.1 billion budget for the agency, which has about 2,300 employees. Christopher Jones, executive director of the Department of Human Services, was in attendance.

Pollert, who led the appropriations subcommittee before taking over as House majority leader this session, said he also had used the secure room to hold some committee hearings in the past, but believed it was legal because the subcommittee didn’t make up a quorum of the full 21-member House appropriations committee.

Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney who represents media outlets on issues regarding the state’s open records and meetings laws, said the subcommittee, or any “committee formed by a public body is also subject to the open meeting laws.”

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