MINOT, N.D. — Should members of state boards, including statewide elected officials, be restricted from announcing new ideas to the public?
Should a board member be admonished for inquiring about the job performance, both past, and present, of a consultant?
Apparently, some on North Dakota's State Investment Board feel the answer to those questions is "yes." A contentious discussion occurred at the end of a recent SIB meeting, which resulted in a motion to study the board's governance policy with an eye toward restricting the ability of board members to speak to the press and the public.
Several factors precipitated the move.
The first is the debate over a new in-state investment program. In September of last year, and ahead of the 2021 legislative session, Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, a member, by law, of the SIB, announced a proposal for an in-state investment program using Legacy Fund dollars.
The SIB oversees Legacy Fund investments.
Godfread's idea was ultimately given form by House Bill 1425, introduced by Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck. However, some SIB members opposed the idea, and outgoing SIB executive director Dave Hunter, who just recently announced his resignation, was active in lobbying against the idea at the Legislature. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Doug Burgum.
The second was a letter sent by Treasurer Thomas Beadle, whose office also holds a seat on the SIB, making inquiries about San Francisco-based consultant Callan, who works on behalf of the board. Beadle's letter asked whether Callan had made an effort to include in-state companies in their search for a manager for the new in-state investment program and also inquired about some past problems Callan had with an alleged pay-for-play scheme in California (Callan paid a $4.5 million settlement to the City of San Diego while admitting no wrong-doing).
The third may well be some of my work. I have been critical of the way the SIB has handled the new in-state investment program and just recently had an interview with Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford who serves as the SIB's chairman, where I pressed him with questions about the in-state investment program.
These issues came to a head during a lengthy discussion at a Friday, May 21, meeting of the SIB, with some board members calling for a restriction on the ability of board members to speak candidly to the press, and the public, about board business.
Such a move would create "a perceived lack of transparency," Godfread said during the meeting, adding that even discussing it "has a squelching effect" on the ability of board members to communicate with the media and the public.
"It will look like we locked down," Sanford added.
Troy Seibel, a representative on the board for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, disputed these arguments. "The idea that not responding to the media is somehow not transparent, that's simply not accurate," pointing out that meetings and their attendant records are open to the public.
Land Commissioner Jodi Smith impugned the motivations of the news media in seeking information from board members. "They're there for a story, not to report on something that's mundane," she said.
A particularly heated moment came toward the end of the discussion when Jamestown Public Schools Superintendent Rob Lech, the SIB's vice chairman and a trustee for the Teachers Fund For Retirement, told Beadle he was "starting to get real cute" in defending his inquiries to Callan.
Here's the audio for the May 21 meeting (the pertinent discussions start around the 2-hour mark).
It was a discussion as remarkable for its content — state officials openly talking about how to be less candid with the public — as the people involved in it.
Again three of the people involved in the discussion — Sanford, Godfread, and Beadle — are statewide elected officials. They have mandates from the voters and a responsibility to those constituencies. Serving on state boards is a part of their job duties and a part of what they campaigned on when they ran for office.
That the board would attempt to curtail their ability to speak, in particular, is offensive.
To the credit of these three gentlemen, they seemed very skeptical of the proposal, which at one point would have had either Sanford, acting as chairman, or the entire board, approving things like interview requests for board members. What the board ultimately approved was a review of the board's governing policies.
The issue isn't dead, but for now, it's not moving forward either.
It can often seem as though North Dakota's public officials can't tie their shoes without asking the advice of a consultant.
The State Investment Board seemingly can't even hire a consultant without consulting a consultant. These boards do not exist to hire consultants and rubber-stamp their findings. Yet some seem to think that's exactly the job of state boards and are willing to go so far as to try and silence their fellow members who promote policy ideas the consultants don't like or even make inquiries into the performance of a consultant.
Which are exactly the sort of people who shouldn't be involved in public service.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.