After call for less secrecy, reporter kicked out of Fargo meeting

State and county officials in Minnesota and North Dakota have issued their reply to a Fargo Forum editorial calling for a more open process when discussing the $2.2 billion flood diversion project on the Red River. They kicked a reporter out of a meeting yesterday, the Fargo Forum reports.

The massive project, aimed at preventing flooding in Fargo and Moorhead, has been stalled because the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has refused to issue a permit.

In its editorial on Sunday, the Forum called for less privacy and more public inspection.

Let’s remember what’s at stake here. This task force, a creature of government, could very well determine the fate of the diversion, the only viable option for protection against catastrophic flooding. The massive project is massively expensive, paid for by tax dollars contributed by the state of North Dakota and, through local sales taxes, by Cass County and the city of Fargo, as well as federal help. (The state of Minnesota as well as Moorhead and Clay County have yet to pledge any financial support.) As taxpayers and as residents whose property is at stake, the public has a clear and compelling right to be able to attend the task force’s meetings as well as follow news reports of those meetings and proceedings.

Before the task force, technical experts had been discussing possible diversion modifications to enable the project to get a Minnesota permit. What are those options? We don’t know. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who also serves as chairman of the Diversion Authority, has said engineers and technical experts have come up with a slate of 20 alternatives. What are they? What tradeoffs do they entail? We don’t know, because they haven’t been discussed publicly.

At a meeting yesterday, a reporter was escorted out of the meeting by officials who later claimed open meeting laws allowed a closed meeting when litigation is involved.

But North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum also revealed another reason.

“The primary reason is,” Burgum said, “we want to make sure everybody in the room feels comfortable sharing their concerns.”

That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

“Whether permitted or not by law to hold these meetings in private is not really the point,” Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon said Wednesday. “This is a massively expensive project, with massive public expense and impact. The people should know what is happening and their elected leaders should want them to know.”

Burgum later tweeted what he thinks people need to know about what happened at the meeting.

  • Irony is lost on those people.

  • MikeB

    It’s all the rage for public officials. Democracy is so quaint. Just trust us and get out of the way as we deal in our own self interest.

    • I found that out while working in the administration building of a larger local school district.

      :/

  • MrE85

    Burgum has been on the job long enough to know that government does not operate under the same rules as private enterprise. He is a public servant, not the public’s master.

    • It’s not just Burgum. It’s also Dayton and his crowd.

      • MrE85

        Good point. I wonder what the people who met during the floods think of how this is going?

    • bpost

      Burgum will never, ever think of himself as some entity’s or group’s servant.
      Never.

  • ec99

    Fargo believes North Dakota ends at its western boundary. Its urban planning strategy is the amoeba model. They built a new high school on a flood plain. Now they worry about water.

    • John O.

      I’ll bet they have outstanding swimming teams then.

  • BJ

    Open government is good. I’m all for having everything out in the open. But, sometimes things are so big and so complicated that the ‘experts’ need a little free space (very little) to really throw out some bad ideas that might get the other ‘experts’ thinking about a problem differently.

    That said. Any and all decision and ‘formal’ talks really need to be open. Education of the politicians can be private.

  • bpost

    I get private discussions to work out details. But when you have close to 40 public officials, either elected or publicly-paid staff, keeping it a private discussion is, and should be, exceedingly difficult.
    And if you happen to get to Fargo, that room in the Main Library is close to a glass fishbowl. Looking through the doors & windows anyone could see who was present and count heads to see if quorums of various sub-groups, such as the Diversion Authority, were present.

  • Jim in RF

    This shows what can happen when the local newspapers disappear or get downsized to nothing. Although the Forum is still a going concern in Fargo, out in western WI or southern MN the papers would never have the standing or resources to contest this sort of meeting. They barely run the obits and police beat anymore, and there’s no check on things like OML and PIO violations.

    • MikeB

      I hope they file suit, not sure that’s how Forum Communications rolls however

      • bpost

        Actually, Forum Communications is pretty quick to file open meetings complaints with the Attorney General.

        • MikeB

          We’ll see what happens in this case. Seems obvious, but perhaps nothing is obvious anymore

  • crystals

    If I’m reading the story correctly, this meeting was in Fargo so North Dakota open meeting laws applied. (There was also a meeting last week in Moorhead, where Minnesota’s law would have applied and where a reporter was also asked to leave.) I did some quick skimming of the ND law, and theirs is quite a bit different from ours – it wouldn’t cover the lame-o “primary reason” Burgum gave, but they still might have technically been operating within the law…which it sounds like the editor understands but just disagrees with.

    I’d be interested to know in both cases (MN & ND meetings) if they cited the law and specific statute that allow them to close public meetings, and if they’re doing all of the other things they’re supposed to do when they decide to shut the public out.

    Here’s an overview of ND’s law: https://attorneygeneral.nd.gov/sites/ag/files/documents/OpenMeetingsManual.pdf
    Here’s an overview of ours:
    http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/openmtg.pdf

  • MrE85

    While the reporter’s name wasn’t mentioned in the Forum news story, he is Tu-Uyen Tran. http://www.inforum.com/users/tu-uyen-tran