Audio: Senator Flakoll Defends Limits On Legislator Records Requests

On Friday last week I interviewed Senator Tim Flakoll (R-Fargo) while guest hosting the Jay Thomas Show regarding SB2222 which, if passed, would do two things:

  • Make all legislator requests for records a public record in their own right.
  • Limit legislators to no more than $5,000 worth of requests per biennium unless Legislative Management approves said requests. Requests over that dollar limit not approved by Legislative Management would come out of the lawmaker’s pocket.

Flakoll’s bill seems to be part of a larger backlash against open records request coming from the North Dakota University System (of which Flakoll is an employee). This combined with a demand that evaluations of university presidents (and the materials used to produce them) be off-the-record makes it pretty clear that the universities want less transparency.

Especially given some of the clashes between the university system and lawmakers over open records. Multiple lawmakers have told me that they feel the university system sandbags their requests, and at times destroys records rather than turn them over.

Instead of legislation aimed at limiting lawmaker requests, maybe we ought to address why lawmakers feel they can’t trust the university system to be forthright in honoring those requests?

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”Instead of legislation aimed at limiting lawmaker requests, maybe we ought to address why lawmakers feel they can’t trust the university system to be forthright in honoring those requests?”[/mks_pullquote]

Still, Flakoll defended the legislation saying that he didn’t believe it would curtain transparency.

I asked him if he was concerned about the targets of requests for records inflating costs in order to discourage requests (former NDUS Chancellor Hamid Shirvani told me that university system have discussed using this very tactic against me). Flakoll said that the universities and other departments/agencies would have to justify their costs to Legislative Management. He said that if they’re caught inflating costs they’d get embarrassed upon review.

But are we to believe that the North Dakota University System, which has repeatedly and flagrantly violated open records and open meetings laws, cares about being embarrassed in this regard?

Not to mention the fact that requesting records is already a lengthy and arduous process, and that adding another layer of bureaucracy to it (review by Legislative Management) will only make it worse.

I think it’s fair to say that a few lawmakers in recent years have gone a little overboard with some of their requests for information. And perhaps there is an element of Flakoll’s bill which could address this. I’m not at all against lawmakers having to put their names to their requests instead of enjoying anonymity as they do now (as a member of the public all of my requests are public), but Flakoll’s proposed dollar cap on requests is a bad idea.

If lawmakers want records, and are willing to ask for them publicly, they should get them. If that adds up to a big cost for the taxpayers, so be it. Government transparency should be an area where we’re willing to spend dollars, and the voters can decide if any given lawmaker is getting carried away.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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