A sharply divided Board of University and School Lands voted 3-2 Tuesday to name Jodi Smith as commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands.

Gov. Doug Burgum, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler and State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt voted to offer the job to Smith, who they said is a strong communicator and could be a change agent for the department.

Smith, of Bismarck, most recently worked as vice president of the western region for Sanford Health Foundation.

Current commissioner Lance Gaebe received votes from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Secretary of State Al Jaeger to continue in the position he’s held since 2010.

The vote followed interviews with Gaebe, Smith and a third finalist, Douglas Lee, who worked for 30 years in the oil and gas industry, most recently for a division of KLJ.

The board’s debate focused on Gaebe and Smith, with some advocating for Gaebe’s years of experience and credentials while others favored a change and raised concerns about Gaebe’s communication style.

“Are we going to be comfortable and continue on the path that we are on, or are we going to be courageous and look at a change?” Schmidt asked during the discussion.

Burgum said Smith is a strong external communicator who would bring fresh eyes to the department.

“I think there’s a risk of no change,” Burgum said. “It represents we’re going to get more of the same.”

Jaeger strongly voiced his preference for Gaebe and said, if board members have concerns about Gaebe’s leadership style or communication skills, they should work with him on those areas.

Stenehjem said Gaebe was the only finalist with the preferred qualifications listed in the job description and said Smith would have an “enormous learning curve.”

Baesler agreed there would be a learning curve but said Smith appeared to be a “quick study.”

The Department of Trust Lands manages the permanent educational trust funds and assets under the Land Board’s control. The department also manages sovereign mineral acres, operates the Unclaimed Property Division and the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office.

The department was the subject of critical audits last year that identified deficiencies the agency continues to address.

The Land Board is involved in litigation regarding disputes over oil and gas mineral ownership under Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River that led to new legislation approved in the past session.

The department also is attempting to collect oil and gas royalty payments after an audit showed that some oil companies took improper deductions from royalties owed to the state. The North Dakota Petroleum Council says the department is drastically changing its policy and has said the matter is likely to be challenged in court.

The Land Board voted in May to open a search for land commissioner. Burgum, who is chairman of the board, also required members of his Cabinet to reapply for their positions after he took office. The land commissioner is not a member of the governor’s Cabinet but is appointed by the five-member board.

Smith, who has lived in North Dakota since 2012, said she was “humbled and honored” to accept the position. The Land Board will determine terms of the appointment and a starting date.

Smith worked for two years for Sanford Health Foundation, directing business aspects of the foundation. She also worked as foundation director for Trinity Health Foundation in Minot and executive director of the St. John’s Foundation in Billings, Mont.

Smith has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Pepperdine University and a master’s degree in business administration from Regis University in Colorado, where she was also part-owner of a dairy farm.

After the meeting, Burgum expressed gratitude for Gaebe’s leadership during a time of significant growth.

In an interview, Gaebe said it’s been an honor to work with co-workers at the department who remember every day their responsibility is to manage the trust to benefit school kids and other beneficiaries and take care of energy-impacted communities and unclaimed property owners.

Thirty-two people applied for the job, with 23 meeting minimum qualifications. Under a new law that took effect Aug. 1, only names of finalists became public.

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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