“This office and the North Dakota Supreme Court have repeatedly recognized that personnel issues and records, including discussions on termination of a public employee and job performance and evaluation, are not protected under the open records and meetings law.”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem ruled Friday that the Devils Lake City Commission violated the open meetings law when suspending Chief Keith Schroeder and Capt. Jon Barnett of the Devils Lake Police Department in closed session on April 3 of last month.

The city entered into closed session after its regular meeting in order to discuss the suspensions. The AG’s office ruled that city attorney Tom Traynor’s assertion that the board was “discussing negotiations” didn’t pass muster.

“This office and the North Dakota Supreme Court have repeatedly recognized that personnel issues and records, including discussions on termination of a public employee and job performance and evaluation, are not protected under the open records and meetings law.”

Stenehjem also pointed to past legal precedent: “Regardless of how uncomfortable it might be to discuss the termination of an employee on grounds for misconduct in an open meeting, the public has a right to hear the deliberations and reasoning of the [governing body], and there is no exception to the open meetings law for personnel matters.”

It’s another blow to the credibility of a commission that apparently either ignored or misinterpreted the open meetings law for the second time since 2014.

That year it was found that the city violated the North Dakota Century Code when the commission created an ad hoc committee to discuss an issue concerning property near Devils Lake Regional Airport.

The latest violation comes at time when the city is attempting to negotiate a separation package with both Schroeder and Barnett. The city's top two police officers were suspended in an illegal closed session, apparently based on one report filed by human resources consultant Tanya Wieler - but Stenehjem’s ruling also indicated some of what the commission discussed during the meeting that apparently also had an impact on the decision to suspend the officers.

It was revealed in the AG’s ruling that commissioners “did not engage any discussions regarding negotiation strategy,” directly contradicting Traynor’s explanation to the Journal for the decision to enter into closed session.

Also, part of the commission discussion that ultimately led to Barnett and Schroeder’s suspensions involved the sharing of “stories of personal experience and other things they had heard in the community regarding Chief Schroeder and Captain Barnett.”

What exactly commissioners “heard in the community” was not specified in the ruling; however, because the AG’s office ruled that the meeting was held illegally, the city has been directed to release a tape of the closed meeting to the Journal, KZZY-FM’s news department and the Grand Forks Herald, each of which filed a complaint to the AG regarding the legality of the meeting.

The contents of the tape will be analyzed and reported upon when it is made available.

What’s next for the commission is unclear, though discussions continue about compensation packages for both suspended officers. We’ll have more on this story in Monday's Journal and as it develops.