The state selected a commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands last week, but because of a new law very little of the hiring process was done in public.

The new law took effect Aug. 1 and under the change only names of finalists became public. We know 32 applied for the job, with 23 meeting minimum qualifications. The Board of University and School Lands named a selection committee to review the candidates and recommend finalists. The finalists were current commissioner Lance Gaebe, Jodi Smith and Douglas Lee. Smith, Bismarck, was vice president of the western region for Sanford Health Foundation. Lee worked for 30 years in the oil and gas industry, most recently for a division of KLJ.

The board, made up of Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, Secretary of State Al Jaeger and State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, was deeply divided between Gaebe and Smith. Burgum, Baesler and Schmidt favored Smith, while Stenehjem and Jaeger argued for Gaebe. The debate over Smith and Gaebe was the only public discussion of the merits of the candidates. It was obvious the board thought they had two strong candidates with different leadership styles and skills. Smith got the job on a 3-2 vote, which means she’ll probably have to prove herself to two board members.

The Tribune isn’t critical of the board’s choice. It’s good to have solid candidates and a debate over their merits. The problem, as the Tribune sees it, is that the new law takes away the public’s ability to judge the candidate field and decide whether the board made the right decision. The Tribune opposed the move to change the law in the Legislature and still believes it was bad legislation.

Supporters of the new law argued that making all applicants’ names public discouraged some qualified people from applying. The argument being that they didn’t want their names made public early in the process because their current employers might be disappointed. It’s interesting the three finalists were all from North Dakota. We will probably never know the qualifications and hometowns of the 29 other applicants.

Smith takes over an important job.

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 Land Board is involved in litigation regarding disputes over oil and gas mineral ownership under Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River that resulted in new legislation approved in the last 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.

Gaebe has drawn criticism during his time as commissioner. The department was the subject of critical audits last year that identified deficiencies the agency continues to address. During the oil boom Gaebe and the department were involved in some controversial decisions. Gaebe served as deputy chief of staff and senior policy adviser to then-Gov. John Hoeven. Prior to joining the Hoeven administration, he was executive director of the state Agricultural Products Utilization Commission.

Smith got strong support from three board members and no doubt Stenehjem and Jaeger will work well with her. Burgum has said he wants to take the state in a new direction and Smith’s selection is part of that effort. The Tribune just wishes the public had been allowed to hear the interviews and the selection committee’s discussions. It doesn’t seem like the best way to do business. Everyone is left to trust the decision of the Board of University and School Lands.