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Congressman Kevin Cramer, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum hosted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at a closed roundtable discussion in Fargo Wednesday, Aug. 9. Dave Olson/Forum News Service

EPA director's visit embarrasses ND officials

The North Dakota stop on Scott Pruitt's "listening tour" produced a culture clash. Pruitt is the famously secretive administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a cabinet level position. North Dakota's political culture is one of the most open in the nation.

Cabinet members don't show up in North Dakota all that often. When they do, the event is usually straightforward, with press conferences, public meetings and political credit for the local official who arranged the visit.

Pruitt's visit was meant to hear what North Dakotans have to say about an EPA rule called Waters of the United States and to showcase the state's energy research.

This visit turned out to be an imposition and an embarrassment.

Three meetings were held, one in Fargo on the North Dakota State University campus, one in Grand Forks at the Energy and Environmental Research Center, and one on a farm west of Grand Forks.

Nothing went smoothly. To begin with, there was confusion, both about who was in charge and about how matters would proceed.

Let's try to sort this out, official by official:

Pruitt wasn't exactly invited. He said he was coming.

Gov. Doug Burgum would be the host, and his office worked with Pruitt's staff on arrangements. Initially, the governor's office said the meetings would be open.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., would be involved, too, especially in arranging a meeting with farm leaders. This was an addition to the schedule. Hoeven insisted on it because Pruitt's staff strictly limited attendance at the Fargo meeting. Hoeven's office invited journalists.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. — closer to the Trump administration than the others — doubted that Pruitt would welcome either the public or the press. His weekly schedule included the meetings and a notation that said "closed press."

Still, the governor's office said there'd be 15 minutes at the close of each meeting for Pruitt and state officials to meet with reporters.

That didn't happen. Pruitt's office insisted the meetings be closed completely. Only invited guests would be welcome. Meetings with reporters would be limited, outside the meetings and on Pruitt's own terms. There would be no chance for unwanted reporters to ask questions.

This created a couple of dilemmas for North Dakota officials.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was in an especially awkward position. He's been the point person and a national leader in the war on WOTUS.

He's also been a supporter of government openness, winning awards from media groups for consistently ruling that meetings must be open unless there's a specific exemption in the law. What's more, he's said that a quorum of members of a government body would constitute a meeting.

Stenehjem was on the list of officials invited; his presence and the governor's would create a quorum of the Industrial Commission, which regulates the state's oil and gas industry.

The attorney general acted to deflect the issue. One of his assistants prepared a memorandum arguing that since the meeting about Waters of the United States wouldn't deal with commission business, there'd be no violation of the law.

He attended the meeting in Fargo.

This didn't satisfy media. KFGO Radio in Fargo has asked for an opinion about whether or not the meeting violated the state's open meetings laws. That opinion will come from the attorney general's office, within six months, a spokesperson said.

Stenehjem did not attend the meeting at the EERC, which included the director of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. At the meeting — according to one who was there — Burgum said Stenehjem was avoiding a conflict with the state's open meetings law.

Reporters at the Grand Forks meeting were told — incorrectly — that the EERC was on private property. One reporter who'd received an invitation to the meeting at the Bateman farm was told not to come, embarrassing Hoeven, who'd issued the invitation.

This episode raises a number of questions:

Is there a presumption that meetings involving public officials be open? Should there have been a record of such meetings? What's the policy about holding private meetings to push a political agenda on public property?

And, who's in charge here?

The affair is not without irony. The Republican Party champions state's rights. Apparently that doesn't extend to the right to openness in government when a member of a Republican cabinet objects.

Finally, there's this: Nothing unexpected was said at the meetings, nothing that hasn't been reported before, nothing that wasn't already known.

The listening tour amounted to "choir practice," one of the participants at the Grand Forks meeting said.

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